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An Interview With: CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER
KELLY ELBIN: United States Ryder Cup Team Captain Paul Azinger has joined us at the Valhalla Golf Club for the 37th Ryder Cup. Captain Azinger, welcome back to Valhalla.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Thank you.
KELLY ELBIN: What's it like to have your team out on the golf course for the first day of practice?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: It's been great. I want to apologize for being a little bit late. I like the way the golf course looks. I've got three foursomes out there today, and everybody is just trying to get acclimated to playing together and embracing kind of the crowd out there. There's a lot of people out there today.
But we're just trying to get to know the golf course a little bit and just prepare and try to prepare properly to get ready to play this golf course.
KELLY ELBIN: Let's open it up for questions, please.
Q. With six rookies on the team, I know pairings are something that are going to play out depending on who looks like they're best suited to some of these team formats, but is it your preference to pair those guys off with experienced guys; or do you see a scenario where you might have rookie and rookie holding hands out there the first two days and maybe the pros and cons of some of that?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: I really haven't decided yet what I'm going to do. I wouldn't have any trouble putting rookie and rookie together. Sometimes I think it's more difficult to go out with on experienced player. I think sometimes the rookie feels like he has something to prove to that guy. I don't want anybody to feel that way.
But I don't think anybody on the team, honestly, when you talk about rookies, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis, I'm trying to think who else, I mean, Anthony Kim, these guys all know that they're equally as good as the guys who have played Ryder Cup before.
But I like the idea of putting rookies together, too. I like the team, I make the makeup of the team. It worked out that we have six rookies and six veteran players, but I think our rookies are all gamers.
Q. You've got guys out there, as you said, in foursomes. Any order? I mean, did you think about obviously how you'd put them out there today? Can we read anything into the four guys that are out there with each other?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, you can read what you want. You just don't throw them out willy nilly. I'm not drawing names out of a hat (laughing).
Q. What do you expect out of Anthony Kim, and how important is he to your team?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, you know, I don't want to put expectations on anybody. I just really want the players to go out there and try to prepare. We all know how well he's played in the past. He's got two wins this year on the two hardest courses probably we played all year, and I think he has a bright future.
A lot of times Ryder Cup is a steppingstone for guys to win major championships. He's young, but for expectations, you know, I don't think that's fair to do that to anybody. I mean, I'm just the captain for a week. I'm not a coach that's had him for four years or anything like that.
I think everybody probably expects Anthony Kim to be a great player for the rest of his career. You know, one week, I just look for Anthony Kim to be completely committed to the team concept and to trying to just get ready to play this competition.
Q. I wondered, could you describe your relationship with Nick 10 or 15 years ago when you were playing against him and whether it's changed now and whether working together in television had anything to do with if it mellowed at all, if that's the reason it mellowed?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: I mean, I don't know anybody that had a relationship with Nick 10 or 15 years ago, so I'm probably not that different from anybody else. I didn't know him very well. I said this 20 times: I never heard the guy complete a sentence the first 20 years I knew him, and now his voice activation has switched on and he can't turn it off.
He's a different guy. Our relationship is pretty good. I mean, he's from another world. He's completely different than I am, and I thought we got along in the broadcast booth, and we've spent time together. But we're going to be really competitive against each other.
I mean, both of us want to come out here and do the best we possibly can, and I don't think either one of us wants to leave here with our head hanging. As far as that, I don't know what else to tell you.
Q. Two years ago Stewart Cink went to Tom and said, "Put me with the rookies, with the new guys," and he said he made the same offer to you. What does it mean to some of the more inexperienced guys to have somebody like Stewart with them, and what does that say about him that he would make that kind of offer?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, I think Stewart, he's a little older. He's got some experience, and I feel like he's the kind of personality that wants to embrace somebody that's never done it before. That's good.
But there's a lot of guys that can do that on this team. But that's what Stewart wanted. I've looked at that carefully, which two rookies would I put Stewart with. But I think Stewart is a team guy; he wants to right the ship, and he feels like that's one way he can contribute. I kind of agree with him. He'll probably get his wish.
Q. Nick Faldo said that you had regretted your choice of vice captains. I just wonder, is that true?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: That he said it?
Q. Well, no (laughter). I know it's true that he said it.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Do you think it's true that he said it?
Q. I think it is.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Did you hear him say it?
Q. I did, actually.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Did you ask him?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Who asked him? Did someone hear him say it?
Q. Yeah, people heard him say it and reported it.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Did you hear him say it?
Q. People heard him say it and reported it.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Did you hear him say it? I question whether he said it, and if he did say it, it's completely not true.
Q. So why would he say it?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Go ask him.
Q. Do you have an opinion on the opposition captain giving away secrets from your team room?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Did he give away a secret? I don't know where you're going with that. I mean, I really don't. I don't believe he said it. It's completely not true.
Q. Before we even got here this week, you had already shaken things up with the way you chose this team and the schedule of play. How important is that notion of change, being on a losing streak? How much else do you kind of shake things up this week? What other changes might we expect to the way things are done?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: You're talking about playing foursomes in the morning, four ball, alternate shot, best ball in the afternoon?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Ryder Cups I played we always played alternate shot in the morning. It would be hard to make a case that we're better at one or the other because of the margin of victory.
Sometimes I think a change is good as the rest. I don't mind changing it back to the way it was when I played, and I just feel like they've won five of the last six matches playing best ball in the morning. I think it would be kind of crazy not to change it.
Q. Are there any other changes that you may want to discuss?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Not really. I mean, there's only so much you can do. Changing the selection process was a pretty big change. I think that in all sports, you know, you look at the NFL, I mean, every team for the most part within their division plays each team twice. The team that loses generally will try to make the necessary adjustments to win the rematch, and the team that wins will probably try to do everything the same.
We were losing, and I've tried to make some necessary adjustments to win the rematch. Although, it's not a rematch because we have different players here and it's a different golf course.
But I think it was important to make these changes. I felt like the selection process was kind of antiquated. If 100 percent of the TOUR was American players and we had Top 10 finishes, you'd give out 100 percent of the points.
But starting in the late 80s, early 90s we had this infusion of foreign players from Australia and South Africa and Europe and we weren't giving out all the allowable points. I felt like money was a barometer for us and money has brought about change. That was the first change, and the PGA of America agreed. They came to a consensus on some things and we have the system that we have.
I think it would be difficult to argue that the top eight players on that points system of ours, that you would look at any one of those guys and say how did that guy make this team. I don't think you could ever make that argument. I think the system, we have exactly who we want to have on this team without minus of course Tiger Woods, the greatest player on earth. But I like the way it's worked out. So other than that, I don't know what other changes I can make.
Q. Did the players actually meet Muhammad Ali last night, and what role do you envisage for Lou Holtz this week? And do you have anybody else in mind that you envisage bringing into the team environment during the course of the tournament?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: We weren't able to meet Muhammad Ali last night. I think with the power out last night, they were in Michigan and weren't able to get back. We're going to meet him later on in the week. I don't know if we're going to heat him today, but we'll try to work that out. I love boxing. I've idolized Muhammad Ali all my life. We went through the Muhammad Ali Museum yesterday; I think the European team is going to do that to him. We'll probably run into him.
Lou Holtz is a good friend, and he wants to hang out with us, and I said absolutely. He loves golf. He's a great guy. Always has a great message. We're just going to spend time with Coach a little bit. He's going to follow some groups today, just hanging out, real casual and then tonight he's going to eat dinner with us. He'll probably say a few words. It's hard to get him not to; here's $10,000 not to say anything. Okay, well, I'll keep it.
Q. The Americans in recent Ryder Cups have not played their best golf. Do you have an understanding of why that might have been, and what are you bringing to your captaincy to try and bring their best golf out of them?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: I just spent the last three minutes telling you we changed the selection process. I personally felt like that's been kind of the issue, not minimizing the guys that played on the previous Ryder Cup teams that weren't winning, but I would say that we didn't necessarily we had a two and a half year system in place. Some guys could make the team based on a previous year's performance and show up not playing all that well.
You know, they're common names on occasion, so I think I already addressed that and the changing of the selection process.
Q. I take your point about the team maybe not being as strong as you would have wanted it to be for selection reasons, but a lot of the players who did come did not deliver their best golf that they had been delivering previous weeks; a lot of the star players who you would obviously want to be playing their best golf now.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Are you talking about in the past?
Q. Yeah, in the previous three competitions.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, you know what, the past is the past. What difference does the past make to us? Those are different teams, different players, different course, different years, different times. We're looking now to the future. I don't care about the past. We know what the past is.
We've done a lot of things to try to correct in the selection process what's been going on here, and if we've done it right, then we'll be competitive. We'll just have to see. I'm not going to talk about what happened in the past. As much as I can, I'm focusing on the present and the future. I can't answer those questions for you. I really don't know the answers.
Q. In the last ten years, what have you seen from Sergio during the week of the Ryder Cup that you might not have seen from him any other week of the year? And then a follow up question later.
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, obviously Sergio is one of the most passionate players that Europe has ever had. He's along the lines of a Seve or Montgomerie or Darren Clarke or somebody like that. There's a lot of passion. I just feel like he just elevates somehow. He putts different. He putts better. I don't know; ask him why he makes so many putts. I think that's a good question you can ask him.
Q. Secondly, in the short time you were on the course this morning, what have you seen from the Kentucky gallery? And are there any plans to get them engaged for the week?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, thanks for asking. We actually are loving our gallery. I want to treat them like they're going to be our 13th man. We've got little lapel pins that we're passing out to the crowd that has the American flag on it and the Ryder Cup. I might have some, actually. It's got the Ryder Cup on it. We're tossing these to the crowd, and they're loving that. They're screaming for more pins. I don't think we have enough. We only have 10,000. That might not be enough.
We're going to do a pep rally Thursday night on Fourth Street. The City of Louisville is putting it on, and we're going to come down there and blow tee shirts out of guns to the crowd, stuff like that. We want to embrace this crowd. We don't want what happened in '04 to happen again. The Europeans are already requesting Sharpies on the tees and stuff like that, so I know what they're trying to do.
I feel like the people of Kentucky have made me their own. I love this town and I love this state, and I couldn't think of a better place for us to be. I know it's going to be an energized crowd, so to that point we're going to embrace them and try to get them energized.
All the while, the message is certainly always going to be to maintain a certain level of sportsmanship. We don't want anybody out of hand. Of course there will be alcohol served and of course be some minor cases, but we are engaging the crowd.
I'll tell you one thing. On 13, the tee is all the way back, and honestly, I'll just tell you I don't know if we're going to move the tee up on 13 or not. Tee is all the way back on 13, and I believe the hole is 328 or 330 to the front of the green, and J.B. Holmes flew it right on the green, and the crowd went absolutely crazy. That was just kind of a dose of what we could be in for, and I look forward to it.
Q. Have you or any of the team, the American Team, invited any athletes, prominent athletes, from other sports in the past? We've had Michael Jordan following them around, President Bush and so forth. Are we planning any luminaries that way?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: I haven't sent out any special invitations like that at this point. Julius might know. I think President Bush is coming. But nothing beyond that at this point.
Q. When I talked with Ben Curtis last week, he said that ... I'm not sure if you said it to him or heard what you said it or read that you said it, that experience is important but good experience is also important. Did you go into this wanting a certain amount of new blood on this team so they didn't have the scars from recent Ryder Cups?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: You know, honestly I felt like the selection process would get the best eight players; and whether it was new blood or the same guys that had been there in the past wouldn't matter to me. I just really believe that as Boo Weekley put it, "Money don't lie," and I just felt like that was going to be the barometer.
I like how the top eight guys worked out and it wouldn't have mattered to me who it was. I feel like who it turned out to be are guys that I can embrace and have embraced this tournament.
The four picks, I had a lot of input on the picks. I had some good friends sending me statistics on the players, and in the end it turned out to be kind of on my gut. There was a couple obvious picks. I thought J.B. Holmes was a pretty obvious pick, and I thought Steve Stricker was a really obvious pick. And then it kind of came down to the last three weeks and how players played.
So I really put a lot of credence on the last three weeks and kind of went with my gut.
Q. How do you see Kenny Perry? He had such a great year with the three wins. It seems like things have kind of tailed off with his putter here in recent weeks. How do you see his game?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, actually I thought Kenny played great in the three weeks or four weeks since the PGA Championship, and I thought he actually played fairly well since he actually made the team.
But it's difficult when you have a goal to make a Ryder Cup Team and you win three tournaments; there can be a letdown, a natural letdown. I called him and told him I would hope he wouldn't have a letdown and would establish some more goals for himself.
But I believe that Kenny Perry is excited. He's as loose as he can be at this point. I feel like there's going to be a lot of pressure on him, but if handled properly, I think he'll direct that energy in the right way. I just hope he enjoys the experience. It's a great experience for him to be here.
Q. When you take stock of your assets with your players, whether it's personality or talent, short game, long hitting, what do you see that you like about your team, either individually or collectively?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, I believe collectively everybody is playing well; so I'm happy about that. Looking at how I want to make my pairings in the morning and in the afternoon, my great burden is who do I want to leave out. My goal is to play all 12 guys the first day; I'll let you have that one.
That said, it's difficult to know who to leave out in the morning. So collectively I like how they're all playing. Also collectively I think we have gamers on our team. Everybody seems kind of blue collar ish for the most part with a few country clubbers mixed in.
But I believe we have a bunch of grinders who understand and want to prepare and are embracing this whole thing. This is a big stage. It's a big stage.
Q. I know that you worked with Mark Wilson, the superintendent here, quite a lot in advance of this week. I'm wondering, what were your goals going into that relationship? Did you accomplish what you wanted to, and did you learn something about how maybe course maintenance and the job of the superintendent can affect a competition like this?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, Mark Wilson has turned out to be a really good friend. I feel like he's been fantastic. He's done anything he would do anything I've asked. If I asked him to go mow all the rough down to fairway height, he'd probably do it.
I felt like if I could seek some kind of an advantage and exploit our strength, I would try to do it. Europe has been able to exploit their strength and neutralize the Americans, and they've taken advantage of home course.
We have one great disadvantage over here, and that's that the Europeans play over here on a regular basis, so where can we go that they haven't played where our guys are familiar. They can always go to courses that we don't play on our tour that they play. Then they set the courses up to neutralize our strength, which has generally been power.
So my thought is I want to try to exploit our power. It turns out we don't have a team with great power. We have some powerful players, but I thought we would have seven bombers and five guys that weren't bombers, and it's not the case. I don't think right now that I've been able to grab a course advantage.
But to know that, I have been enlightened a little bit as to what it takes, and Mark Wilson has been terrific to this point. The first cut in some spots is wider than it would ordinarily be.
But I think other than that, I really didn't see anything or find anything that I could do to gain a big edge.
Q. Ray was talking earlier this morning to a group of us in the corner, and he said that you had asked him because you wanted to take advantage of his you wanted to be able to pick his brain. Would you mind putting into your words what Ray and Dave and Olin bring to the team. And secondly, I think in the press conference the other day, you described yourself as a bit of a control freak; is there any feeling that you might not, because of that, be able to take as much advantage of their input as you would like? Do you have any feeling there might be a danger about that?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, first of all, I'll just say that this Ryder Cup is going to be a great experience for all of us. I wanted to share it with some of my closest friends, and I wanted them to be a part of it.
Olin Browne is my best friend on TOUR, and what could be better for me than to share this experience with Olin Browne and with his family. When I got sick and had to do radiation at Loma Linda, it's not far from where Dave Stockton lives. Dave called me up and said: "My wife and I are going to move out of our house, and I'm going to play for six weeks, come live in our house." I didn't know he had dogs and cats to take care of before I said yes, but I moved into Dave Stockton's house. (Laughter).
So a former captain, I think Dave has probably been as involved Dave and Raymond both, with following The Ryder Cup and showed great interest in these matches. I wanted to share this with Dave's family and bring him into this.
And the same with Raymond Floyd. Throughout the years I've spent a lot of time with him, short game, we have a lot of similarities and likes in fishing and stuff like that.
Their experiences, their historical perspective between David and Raymond is just fantastic. Here I am in the pressroom, and I have three groups out there, so I have Olin hanging with one group and Raymond hanging with a group and Dave Stockton hanging with a group.
As far as I'm concerned, I can sit in the locker room and watch TV, and I can give them baseball scores if they want them.
I do plan on getting input; how guys are playing; the way we want maybe to set up teams and matches and things like that. It's invaluable to have those guys. I'm enjoying their company. I believe that the players are going to really enjoy getting to know Dave and Raymond. But they're really going to be a great asset to me.
I am a control freak. It's tricky because I see things the way I want to see them and I want things to be a certain way. If I have to bend, it can be difficult. But I'm willing to bend if I think it's the right thing to do. I'm willing to hear input from everybody, and I will then kind of decipher the input and then make a decision.
But that's the way I want to do it. I think it's a group effort, and I'm going to try to surround myself with the people I think that are best.
Q. The two Kentucky guys this morning, Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, got quite a hand from the crowd basically every time they walked by, and obviously come Friday, it'll be on a much larger scale. Can you talk about how you think the emotion of that will affect both those guys given this stage and playing in their home state?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Well, I know J.B. will be feeding off it big time. That's his personality. He's a lot like me. I think J.B. will embrace that and feed off it. I think the trick will be to calm J.B. down.
And Kenny Perry, I believe he'll embrace it, as well. But I believe in some respects, Kenny might end up being a little more nervous. He's a little older; it's a big stage, but he's also been on this stage before. Not only that, but he should be very confident because he's won three times.
I think the crowd will be energized and they'll be energized, as well. I see it only as a positive for both of them.
Q. You were talking about J.B. a minute ago and driving it on 13. How much of an advantage on this golf course can length be? And with his length, just how much of an advantage can it be in match play?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Length is always an advantage, simply because if you can control it, you're hitting shorter clubs to all the greens.
In match play it can be a big advantage, as well. The only burden in match play is if you're longer is the other guy can really put the pressure on you by stiffing it. But at the same time, if you're closer to the green and the guy does stiff it, then you pretty much have no choice.
I feel like in match play, the great the one thing that you must know about match play is that you often times react to what your opponent is doing. And if they tee off first and they play a tee a certain way; generally if you're ahead, you cover them up. If you're behind in a match, then maybe you try to exploit your length.
But I'll talk match play strategy with the players probably a little bit tonight and just get them in a match play mind set and have them recognize we're not playing stroke play this week. It doesn't matter if you make a 10 on a hole. I believe length is an advantage in that you can actually respond to what's going on.
The advantage a short hitter has is you can put the pressure on. The advantage of a long hitter is he can make a decision based on what he's already seen.
Q. Going back to the two home boys again, do you envision a scenario where you could pair them up at any point this week, or do you want to kind of diffuse the attention and I guess create more noise over a broader area of acreage; whether you think that's viable, send them off first on Friday morning or something to get this place rocking right out of the chute? What are you mulling around in your head there?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: Yeah, I've thought about what am I going to do with those two guys; should I put them together, should I keep them apart. You know, I'd like to put them off first match out to be honest with you and get this crowd rocking.
Q. You spoke about how I want to get back to Muhammad Ali for a second. You spoke about how you admire him. Are there certain qualities or a certain message that you hope the team might be able to draw from from meeting Muhammad Ali?
CAPTAIN PAUL AZINGER: You know, being in there, it's an inspiration. Muhammad Ali, I don't know if you've ever seen the film or not, when you walk in the Muhammad Ali center, but it's about what if and dreams. I thought that was an important message. That's such an important perspective on his life, and it's so vast; it reaches beyond sports and athletics. The players loved it. They loved being in there. I just thought it was a great place to start the week.
KELLY ELBIN: U.S. Team Captain Paul Azinger, thank you very much.
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