Rookies the key factor for US team
A recurring theme when Paul Azinger huddles with his U.S. team is to forget the past at the Ryder Cup.
He can be sure at least half of them get the message.
Ben Curtis was playing the mini-tours when Phillip Price and Paul McGinley delivered crucial points in Sunday singles to win at The Belfry in 2002, the opening blow in this decade of domination for Europe.
Anthony Kim was still in college when Padraig Harrington dropped one last putt at Oakland Hills to give Europe its biggest rout.
He doesn’t watch much golf on TV, so he might have been in a deer stand with a rifle slung over his shoulder when Darren Clarke provided the inspiration and Sergio Garcia provided most of the points in another record romp for Europe at The K Club.
They are among six rookies on the American team, the most in nearly 40 years, who have no Ryder Cup experience. Considering what happened the last three times—and eight of the last 11 dating to 1985—they might be the Americans’ greatest asset.
“Not being a part of the last few U.S. teams is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Phil Mickelson, whose best Ryder Cup was his first one in 1995 when he went 3-0. “So the guys who haven’t played, they have never lost this event.”
It is an eclectic group, for sure.
Steve Stricker is a 41-year-old father of two with impeccable Midwestern manners who has been grinding away at golf for nearly two decades. He won twice on the PGA Tour the year before Tiger Woods turned pro, plunged into a slump so deep he wondered if he would ever get out, then emerged over the last two years to rise as high as No. 3 in the ranking.
His greatest thrill in golf was when Azinger called to tell him he was a captain’s pick.
“Right at the top,” Stricker said. “It’s a great opportunity, something that I’ll have forever.”
Kim is a 23-year-old who grew up in LA and walks with a swagger, assuming he is not weighed down by his garish “AK” belt buckles. His college years at Oklahoma were marred by skirmishes with his coach, but the kid settled down and showed his potential this year, winning the Wachovia Championship and AT&T National at Congressional to become the youngest U.S. rookie since Woods made the team at 21.
Even as the tension builds, Kim breezes along Valhalla without a care.
“I don’t see anybody being tight,” Kim said. “I’m sure as the tournament nears, there’s definitely a little bit more added pressure. But we’re out here to have a good time. We have nothing to lose. Like Paul said, we’re the underdogs this week. We’re going to go out there and freewheel it and make a lot of birdies and have some fun.”
Kim played in a Walker Cup with J.B. Holmes, another rookie picked primarily for his roots (Kentucky) and his power. He has stopped traffic at Valhalla with some of his tee shots, including his drive onto the island green at the 352-yard 13th hole that players from both teams have been talking about.
The other rookie is Hunter Mahan, who made it through his first big test on Tuesday when the British press grilled him over his comments earlier this year in a magazine interview, in which he referred to the Ryder Cup as a moneymaking machine and said he heard that players were treated like slaves by the PGA of America.
“I’m just looking forward to playing golf now,” Mahan said.
This is his second trip to the Ryder Cup, although the first one didn’t last long. He was part of the Junior Ryder Cup team in 1999 that hung around on Saturday to watch the real show at Brookline.
That was the last time the Americans won the Ryder Cup.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” Mahan said, referring to the partisan support from the gallery, although he could have just as easily been talking about a U.S. victory.
Europe had five rookies on its 2004 team, and captain Bernhard Langer kept three of them out of action until the second day. One of those rookies, Paul Casey, thought that was a smart move because it gave them time to get used to noise and the nerves.
Azinger doesn’t have that option. At least two of them will in the opening lineup Friday morning.
He might use all six.
“I wouldn’t have any trouble putting rookie and rookie together,” he said. “Sometimes, I think it’s more difficult to go out with an experienced player. I think sometimes the rookie feels like he has something to prove to that guy. But when you talk about rookies … these guys all know that they’re equally as good as the guys who have played in the Ryder Cup before.”
Weekley and Curtis are probably the most inexperienced.
Jack Nicklaus had Mahan hit the opening tee shot in the Presidents Cup last year in Montreal, and he split the middle. The only hiccup was when the strap on his bag broke leaving the first tee, a slightly embarrassing moment. Mahan played with Stricker, and they won both their matches. Stricker also went 5-0 at the Dunhill Cup in St. Andrews in 1996.
Kim and Holmes were teammates at the Walker Cup in 2005, which the Americans won outside Chicago.
Weekley is soaking it all in, starting with his uniform. The guy who first joined the PGA Tour by wearing rain pants and tennis shoes found himself in some mighty fine threads during the first day of practice.
“I can tell you right now, these pants I’ve got on are probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned,” Weekley said. “These things here, they felt like a pair of silk underwear when you’re getting ready to go hunting. They’re unreal.”
More important than how they look is how they play—and how much they can put the last three Ryder Cups behind them.
“I think the past has got to change,” Weekley said. “You don’t know what you’ve got until you get out there and play with it. It’s like getting a new pack of hounds when we were growing up and going deer hunting. You don’t know what kind of dogs you’ve got until you run them. So let’s run them and we’ll see.”