Azinger Calls On "13th Man' to Spur On Americans

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Paul Azinger was watching from his cart on the 13th hole when he decided to toss a few lapel pins toward his 13th man.

The Kentucky crowd went nuts, clamoring to get its hands on the tiny trinkets adorned with an American flag and the Ryder Cup.

Azinger hopes they're just getting warmed up.

Looking for every possible edge he can muster against those guys from the other side of the Atlantic, the U.S. captain is urging fans in this overgrown college town to let loose with their red-white-and-blue passion, just as they might get fired up for a basketball game at Freedom Hall or down the road at Rupp Arena.

Within reason, of course.

Wink, wink.

"I love this town and I love this state, and I couldn't think of a better place for us to be," Azinger said. "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."

The Americans could certainly use a home cookin' in their every-two-year-series, which has taken on a decidedly European slant. The visiting team has won the last three contests, and five of the last six. The past two meetings have been nothing more than routs, the Euros winning each time by a staggering nine points.

No wonder Azinger is so eager to get the crowd engaged. He certainly remembers what happened four years ago in the last Ryder Cup on American soil.

The Europeans won over the U.S. gallery at Oakland Hills with their friendly banter and willingness to sign every piece of paper put in front of them. By the time the blowout was complete Sunday afternoon, the gallery sounded as though it had been imported from across the ocean.

"We want to embrace this crowd," Azinger said. "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."

Looking for a counter, Louisville is planning a college-style pep rally downtown on the eve of the tournament, which might be ignored in a big city such as Detroit or Boston but should go over well in a state that doesn't have a major-league franchise.

"We're going to come down there and blow T-shirts out of guns to the crowd, stuff like that," Azinger said.

He's already tossed out plenty of pins, which one might think are solid gold from the reaction of those on the other side of the ropes.

"I want to treat them like they're going to be our 13th man," Azinger said. "They're screaming for more pins. I don't think we have enough. We only have 10,000."

Of course, booming drives and clutch putts are ultimately more important than lapel pins and raucous galleries. But Azinger, who already persuaded the powers-that-be to change the selection process — hoping to reward those who are playing best at the moment and giving the captain two extra discretionary picks — knows that a true home-course advantage could work wonders for a team that has six Ryder Cup rookies, half the squad, and is missing its best player.

Tiger Woods will be watching from home, still recovering from season-ending knee surgery.

Azinger does have two Kentucky-born players on his team, Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes, and he might just send them out together in the first match Friday morning.

That would certainly get the crowd into it.

"I've thought about what I am going to do with those two guys," Azinger said. "Should I put them together? Should I keep them apart? You know, I'd like to put them off in the first match out, to be honest with you, and get this crowd rockin'."

Perry and Holmes certainly endorsed the idea.

"I've kind of pushed for it all year," said Perry, who endured plenty of criticism for skipping the U.S. and British Opens to focus on his goal of making the Ryder team. "I thought it would be special for two Kentuckians to lead the charge out there to try to win the Cup back."

Added Holmes, "I'd love to play with Kenny. We have mentioned that to Paul. It's definitely Paul's decision, though. He's the captain, and he's going to do what he thinks is right. If that's sending us off first on Friday, that's great with me. I'd love to go out there and start it off with a bang."

Then again, that bang might go bust if Perry and Holmes were knocked off in the opening match.

The Americans started off with another eye-catching group in 2004 when captain Hal Sutton paired up Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, his two highest-ranked players. They lost, and the Europeans were off and rolling.

"I guess it could backfire if we don't play well and they kick us pretty bad," Perry conceded. "It could also have the reverse role. I just think with the energy and excitement, it's going to put a lot of pressure on the Europeans."

All that aside, the most important thing the Americans can do to improve their chances of regaining the cup might be working on their camaraderie. The Europeans treat each other like the best of friends, while the U.S. team often comes across as a bunch of individualists.

"I've always said, and I say it from the bottom of my heart, I would rather go 0-and-5 and win the Ryder cup as a team than go 5-and-0 and lose it," said Spain's Sergio Garcia, who always seems to rise to the occasion in this format. "It's not about me this week. It's about the European team."

Even on American soil, the Europeans are the clear favorites. For once, they actually appear to have the best team on paper, especially with Woods out of action.

But Mickelson said it might be an advantage to have so many rookies.

"Not being a part of the last few U.S. team is not necessarily a bad thing," he said. "The guys who haven't played, they have never lost this event."


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