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Captains stick to guns with solid, surprising pairings
The 37th Ryder Cup commences at 8:05 a.m. Friday at Valhalla Golf Club, and we now have been provided a bit of a glimpse into the thinking of the two captains, Paul Azinger and Nick Faldo, after they set their lineups for the opening foursomes matches, and it appears they have hunkered in for the long haul rather than making the quick strike.
Azinger eschewed the novelty pairing of Kentucky natives Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, which would have brought the house down without a shot being struck for the sake of a solid competitive mix in Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim.
Faldo couldn't resist his most successful coupling of Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, who in the past have gone 4-1-1.
Azinger put Texans Hunter Mahan and Justin Leonard together, but in the process broke up a Mahan-Steve Stricker combination that went 2-0 in alternate shot a year ago in the Presidents Cup.
Faldo marched out his best player, reigning British Open and PGA champion Padraig Harrington, who is playing in his fifth Ryder Cup, to handle the heat of the opening shot.
Each leader went to the experience well; all six U.S. veterans are teeing it up Friday morning, while only Miguel Angel Jimenez is sitting for Europe because rookie Justin Rose is getting the expected call with countryman Ian Poulter.
Neither captain displayed a hint of doubt about the plan they have started to enact and bring to fruition.
"I've done this a certain way," said Azinger, who played for America in four Ryder Cups, the last in 2002. "I have a certain strategy and philosophy in the way I approach this team, and I'm sticking to my guns on it. I'm flexible in a lot of ways, but there were some things I just wasn't going to be flexible about."
"We have been on the final message all week," said Faldo, who made the last of his 11 starts for Europe as a player in 1997. "I just started the final message once I got my team. I sowed some seeds on my feelings, thoughts, experiences, for tomorrow, Sunday. Nothing will change. As I said, we painted the picture already, what we want to do, and I just keep topping it off."
Without going into specifics on each match-up, what jumps out overall is that there is no readily perceived weakness in any of the eight pairings. One might quibble with the order -- perhaps Garcia and Westwood would have been the better choice leading off for Europe -- but not the combinations themselves.
Faldo opined that, "We're very fortunate that we're in this position this week. I've got a very strong team." Yet Azinger could have appropriated the same verbiage when discussing his players, who even without No. 1 Tiger Woods represent a formidable opposition to a team that has won five of the last six meetings.
How these selections impact what occurs in the afternoon is unknown, of course, and could change based on proceedings, but Azinger was adamant that all 12 Americans would see action Friday. Faldo still continued to hedge.
With that in mind, it would be no surprise to see Holmes and Boo Weekley come off the bench to start the afternoon four-ball matches, perhaps against Harrington and Karlsson. Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell are still a probable team, and Mickelson and Kim, if successful in foursomes, could always get the nod again.
The other home favorite, Perry, loves foursomes, but it would not be a shock to see him sit in the afternoon, save him for a big Saturday push, while Furyk and Steve Stricker anchor the American wave.
On the other side, we mentioned Harrington and Karlsson already, and they could be followed by Jimenez and Graeme McDowell coming off the sidelines. Casey might shepherd in the debut of fellow Englishman Oliver Wilson. Faldo is unlikely to split up his A-Team of Garcia-Westwood, but should they somehow lose in the morning -- Garcia is 13-1-2 in team play and 8-0-0 in foursomes -- then perhaps a shakeup is warranted.
That would leave Soren Hansen on the bench until Saturday.
On paper all looks much more even -- but, then, the last two Ryder Cup ties had the makings of slugfests only to see Europe pummel the Yanks by nine points in each meeting.
Paper is perishable. Friday we see golf shots, guts, groans, second-guessing and the great theater that comes from pure competition.
"This is now. We are nearly there," Faldo said. "Tomorrow morning it starts. It's the Ryder Cup tomorrow. It's the real thing."