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Redneck, white and blue squad exemplifies American spirit
By Dave Shedloski, PGATOUR.COM Senior Correspondent
LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The lessons of the 37th Ryder Cup start with a simple fact that we've always known about sports in general but tend to forget sometimes when it comes to the more sedentary but enervating game of golf: The highest level of competition is usually a milieu for youth.
For with it they bring young hearts, young nerves and the shortest memories.
The United States reclaimed the Ryder Cup Sunday at Valhalla Golf Club, and with it regained a sense of what it never should have lost: American spirit. By whipping the Europeans in singles to register a decisive 16 ½ to 11 ½ victory, Captain Paul Azinger and his redneck, white and blue squad reversed a disturbing trend and refuted several notions of what passes for conventional wisdom.
The U.S. talent pool is much deeper than surmised, its abilities substantial and not just embodied by one supremely talented champion who happened to be sidelined by injury this week. The Americans can come together collectively, they can summon will and fortitude, they can have fun.
"You have to respect what they did, the level of play," said Ian Poulter, who was clearly the European's man of the match with his 4-1 record. "It's hard to analyze the reason for their success except to say that they beat us. They played better. They had a great team.
It was certainly a different team.
Azinger asserted repeatedly in the months leading up to the matches that experience was overrated, that what he preferred to have populating his team were hot hands and not wise heads. It was the reason he wanted to change the qualifying structure and to double his captain's picks to four.
Split equally among rookies and veterans, the U.S. team clearly benefited from the infusion of new talent. The new blood posted a slightly better record, going 9-12-8 and scoring a collective 13 points. They went 4-1-1 in singles on Sunday, a record for singles wins by rookies. The U.S. veterans went 10-8-5 to contribute to 12½ points. They went 3-3 in singles.
Anthony Kim waxed Sergio Garcia in the first singles match to set the tone for the day, but he preceded that with infectious enthusiasm that seemed to light a fire under Phil Mickelson. Hunter Mahan won 3½ points and was the only player on either side to escape defeat playing five matches.
Ben Curtis, J.B. Holmes and Steve Stricker all contributed hugely in adrenaline as well as attitude and aptitude.
Then there was Boo Weekley, perhaps the youngest at heart, even at 35. He was a horse in two four-ball matches with J.B. Holmes, and then he pretended his driver was a horse as he galloped down the first fairway Sunday afternoon before trampling Oliver Wilson 4 and 2. Boo was a happy place unto himself, and his teammates reveled in his child-like enthusiasm and his good-natured, good ol' boy sense of humor.
The picture of Weekley galloping, a la Happy Gilmore, down the first fairway Sunday with his driver between his legs like a Kentucky Derby stallion, said everything you need to know about America's new team.
If you thought Woody Austin as Aquaman brought levity to Team USA last year in the Presidents Cup, well, Boo brought the house down -- right on Europe's collective head.
"That's one of the great things I've ever seen in my life," Azinger said. "Hey, I'm nervous, and I'm nervous for everybody today, for every player. There was a lot at stake for us. We had a little lead, and for him to gallop off that first tee, I'm telling you what, the whole place just cracked up and embraced that guy, embraced him all day. That was an amazing moment, never to be duplicated or equaled."
The difference isn't that they won. The key is that they won being different.
Now it is Europe, which saw its four rookies win as many matches as its veterans -- six -- that looks a little bit old and stale just two years after the Euros were suggesting that America should call up reinforcements from the rest of North America if it were to compete in future Ryder Cups.
Garcia is mature, more level-headed, which is helping him to contend frequently in majors. He's a better player. And, yet, he did not win a match this week. He lacked fire, perhaps because he was ill, or perhaps because once you extinguish the boyish emotions, you have to build your game around technique and mechanics, and those disintegrate under the weight of an opponent's raw desire.
You hang on too tight to the steering wheel and you skid off the road. That's just a harder way to play golf, when you can't let go and just play the game.
Garcia's shutout surprised, but the fact that Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington, the rest of Europe's brick and mortar, also went winless, was astonishing. No one could have predicted that, except perhaps Azinger with his belief in new blood over the tried and true.
Of course, Azinger was part of that new blood, too. He brought new ideas, a new qualifying system for his U.S. team, a new management style that split his dozen into three smaller groups while still keeping them together in spirit and building them into a unit that thrived on its unconventional components as well as its underdog identity.
He also brings, well, needed experience, too. He's won a major, been on winning and losing Ryder Cup teams, beaten cancer. He used all of his experience and prepared for this week not so his team would win, but so that it could win.
"Oh, Paul all the way around in his whole last year has done a great job in building the momentum or the enthusiasm or the interest in America," European Captain Nick Faldo said. "Look what he's done. He changed ... he's really thought about it. He's changed the points systems and the picking system and turned the play around."
And with the Ryder Cup in front of him, and the satisfaction of succeeding etched on his face, Azinger did the best thing he could do in the aftermath, which was put the achievement in a perspective that gave ownership of the U.S. victory to a country and not just his team.
"I don't know what this really means, who was watching today," Azinger said. "We have wars going on right now, the stock market is in terrible shape and people are worrying. There's a lot going on. But I hoped people watched us today and enjoyed seeing us win, enjoyed seeing that the American spirit is alive and well."
It is. It's been there all the time, in the same old places wearing new faces.