Remember When: 2008 Ryder Cup
Things had reached a low point for American hopes in the Ryder Cup.
After decades filled with dominant performances, the U.S. side just endured three straight losses for the first time in the history of the biennial matches. It had been nine long years since the red, white and blue last tasted victory with a memorable comeback at Brookline, and it felt like the Europeans had all the momentum. Enter Paul Azinger, a new U.S. Captain with a new strategy to employ, and a raucous crowd at Valhalla Golf Club who finally had something to celebrate after nearly a decade of coming up short.
Let’s take a look back on the key players and turning points from a memorable week in Kentucky – one that felt like a changing of the tide, even if it turned out only to be a blip in the larger line of European success this century:
The Europeans were riding high heading into Valhalla, having retained the trophy in 2006 with an 18 ½ to 9 ½ drubbing at The K Club. They knew what it took to win on foreign soil, having won two of the last three matches in the U.S. (1995 and 2004) and having been a 1991 Bernhard Langer putt away from making it three of four.
They were led by the most decorated European player in Ryder Cup history (to date), Sir Nick Faldo, and were looking to become the first side to win four straight since the Americans took seven in a row from 1971-83. On the other side was Azinger, a former major champ who brought with him an unconventional approach. Tasked with leading a team that included six Ryder Cup rookies, Azinger employed a “pod” system by breaking the team into three groups of four based on similar traits, games and personalities, and used those pods to derive pairing options for each session.
The biggest star was the one not in uniform: world No. 1 Tiger Woods, notably absent while rehabbing a broken leg and knee injury just months after winning the U.S. Open. The American squad was relatively light on paper with only three players ranked inside the top 10 (Mickelson, Jim Furyk and rookie Anthony Kim). It also marked the Ryder Cup debut of future U.S. Captain Steve Stricker.
The Europeans boasted the only reigning major winner, as Padraig Harrington had just completed a double by winning The Open and the PGA Championship in consecutive months. Joining him on the squad were Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia, while Valhalla marked the debut appearance of future team stalwarts Graeme McDowell and Justin Rose.
The Turning Point
The tone shifted with the very first session of matches Friday morning. After nearly a decade of futility, the Americans got off to a slow start and trailed in all four matches before roaring back to grab a 3-1 lead at the break. Key to those foursomes comebacks were Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell, who edged Rose and Ian Poulter, while the teams of Mickelson/Kim and Furyk/Kenny Perry each earned draws.
The Americans didn’t lose a single match, and it marked the first time since 1999 that the U.S. led after any session of matches. The Euros would spend the next day and a half trying to chip away at that advantage, but by the time Sunday rolled around the home team still enjoyed the same two-point cushion their opening-session efforts had created.
Azinger sent Kim out in a memorable opening match with Garcia, and the rookie shined en route to an emotional 5-and-4 romp that gave the partisan fans plenty to cheer about and set the tone for the rest of the day.
A potential blue wave fizzled out early as the Americans reeled off four straight wins in the middle of the session, including Perry’s victory over Henrik Stenson and fellow Kentuckian J.B. Holmes’ dispatching of Soren Hansen. Frustrations bubbling up over the previous decade were released with a single afternoon of strong match play, as the Americans ultimately took 7 ½ out of 12 available points and cruised to a 16 ½ to 11 ½ win. It marked the largest winning margin for the U.S. since 1981 (and was subsequently eclipsed eight years later at Hazeltine).
The big winner from Valhalla was seemingly Azinger, whose pod system strategy was vindicated and seemed even more prescient when the Euros tipped the scales back by winning each of the next three matches. Faldo’s stint as Euro captain was a surprising disappointment, as his demeanor seemed to clash with some players in the team room, and it became even more jarring in hindsight when peers like Colin Montgomerie and Jose Maria Olazabal led the Euros to subsequent wins.
Despite the breakthrough, several key contributors to the American success never played in the Ryder Cup again: it was the lone appearance for Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley and Ben Curtis, while Kenny Perry made the last of his two team appearances. It was the third and final Ryder Cup for Chad Campbell, and J.B. Holmes wouldn’t make the American roster again until 2016.
Soren Hansen and Oliver Wilson never returned to the Ryder Cup stage for the Euros, while Paul Casey didn’t play his next match until 2018. But for many others this was just the beginning of a long run in the biennial contest, with Rose and McDowell making their debuts and Ian Poulter in just his second appearance. All three would play pivotal roles over the next decade, including the next time the matches returned to the U.S. in 2012 at Medinah. This Euro team may have lost, but it was loaded with talent and in hindsight the roster of 12 may ultimately include up to eight future captains..