LOUISVILLE, Ky. - "The bow's been pulled back for over two years now," said U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Paul Azinger as he motioned with his arms, mimicking an archer eyeing down his target.
"Now it's time."
After two years of preparation - from tampering with the selection process to tweaking the golf course - the first morning of the Ryder Cup Matches at Valhalla Golf Club is just a night's sleep away for Azinger. Thursday afternoon, the morning foursomes were revealed, and Azinger and European Captain Nick Faldo couldn't be more relieved.
"We're nearly there, tomorrow morning it starts," Faldo said.
The captains face very different kind of pressures but the same intense scrutiny. Azinger will try to find the magic ingredient that's been missing in the U.S. team since 1999's win at The Country Club in Brookline. Faldo has been tapped as the captain who cannot kill the European run.
Both have been under plenty of scrutiny, most recently when captain's picks were announced. Azinger was questioned for not including Woody Austin or Rocco Mediate. Faldo drew the most heat in Europe for choosing two fellow Brits with his captain's picks over veterans like Darren Clarke or Colin Montgomerie.
The players are equally ready to get started. Justin Rose and Ian Poulter are gearing up for their morning match versus Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell.
"It's great to see the pairings on paper," said Justin Rose. "We don't have to think about the whole American team anymore. Now it's just 'us' and 'them,' and we have to go out there and beat them."
Azinger might be waiting for the bourbon to sink in the gallery a little before pairing together his Kentucky two-step: Natives J.B. Holmes and Kenny Perry. Perry will play with Jim Furyk in the morning. Holmes will be on the sidelines.
"My intention is to play all 12 players tomorrow," hinted Azinger when asked when Perry and Holmes might team up. He also went on to say he already has the matches planned for the afternoon fourballs.
Faldo, on the other hand, says he hasn't determined the afternoon pairings yet. He also won't commit to all 12 players on Day 1 unlike Azinger.
"We're going to see how it goes," he said.
Justin Leonard and Hunter Mahan will face off against Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey. Stenson is plenty familiar with what Leonard, the 1999 hero at Brookline, brings to the match.
"He has great Ryder Cup experience and is a great putter," admits Stenson. "But I beat him in the game for third place in the match play in Arizona (The Accenture Match Play Championships) this year, so I already have one up on him.
"I think I might have to remind him of that on the first tee."
Spend enough time listening to players talk about the course set-up this week, and you might think the Ryder Cup format has been changed to a scramble. U.S. players in particular are using the word "aggressive" like they're in an NBA post-game conference.
"Azinger set it up so it wasn't going to be a course where you won a lot of holes with par," said Phil Mickelson. "And it's worked out perfectly. We can all play aggressive."
Jim Furyk left after 13 holes in today's practice round after his wife was sent to the hospital with intense back pain, an injury she has dealt with for some time. Azinger said it didn't sway his decision on whether Furyk should play Friday.
"Jim said he knows the golf course and was hitting it great, so he just felt like he was useless the next five holes and that he would rather go see her, give her a big hug and then come back to the opening ceremonies."
Furyk did return in time for the opening ceremonies held later that afternoon.
Muhammad Ali has been welcoming players to his hometown of Louisville this week, which has been a treat for both sides. Ali toured the golf course today and greeted some players at a Monday reception as well. Faldo was visibly choked up just thinking about it and couldn't say much. Players today shared those sentiments.
"It was great for him to come out and watch us hit off No. 10 tee this morning," said Chad Campbell. "It was neat to learn a lot about him Monday. I knew a lot of his boxing, but I didn't know some of the other stuff behind the scenes."
September 19, 2008
Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Channel Courses & Travel. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours.
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