x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Azinger calls on 13th man to spur on US

Before they can win the Ryder Cup, the US team know the importance of winning the crowd.

The US team captain Paul Azinger jokes with spectators during his team's practice session for the Ryder Cup at the Valhalla Golf Club, in Louisville, Kentucky.
The US team captain Paul Azinger jokes with spectators during his team's practice session for the Ryder Cup at the Valhalla Golf Club, in Louisville, Kentucky.

LOUISVILLE, Kentucky // Before they can win the Ryder Cup, the US team know the importance of winning the crowd. As much as the American team have been outpointed by the Europeans on the greens and fairways in recent clashes, they have also lost the public relations fight, and are determined to turn that around in Kentucky. The US captain Paul Azinger is urging home fans to let loose their patriotic passion - within reason.

"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 energised crowd, so to that point we're going to embrace them and try to get them energised. "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."

The visiting Europeans have won the past three Ryder Cups, and five of the last six. The past two meetings have been routs, with Europe winning each time by a staggering nine points. So it is little wonder Azinger is so eager to get the home crowd on side. He remembers what happened four years ago in the last Ryder Cup on American soil. The Europeans won over the US 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 on the Sunday afternoon, the gallery sounded as though it had been imported from across the Atlantic. "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 (marker pens) on the tees and stuff like that, so I know what they're trying to do." Louisville is planning a college-style pep rally downtown on the eve of the tournament to stimulate support.

"We're going to come down there and blow t-shirts out of guns to the crowd, stuff like that," Azinger said. He has already handed out plenty of pins to the delight of the galleries at practice. "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." Booming drives and clutch putts are ultimately more important than lapel pins and raucous galleries. But Azinger 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 their best player Tiger Woods.

Azinger has two Kentucky-born players on his team, Kenny Perry and JB Holmes, and is considering sending them out together in the first match on Friday morning. "Should I put them together? Should I keep them apart?" Azinger said. "You know, I'd like to put them off in the first match out, to be honest with you, and get this crowd rocking." Perry and Holmes endorsed the idea. "I've kind of pushed for it all year," said Perry, who endured plenty of criticism for skipping the US 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."

That bang might go bust if Perry and Holmes are beaten 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."

One thing the Americans can do to improve their chances of regaining the cup would be working on their camaraderie. The Europeans are known for their team spirit, while the US team often comes across as a bunch of individuals. "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."

*AP