x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

The return of Captain Fantastic?

After having the Ryder Cup wrenched from their hands at Valhalla, the bad news for Europe is that Paul Azinger could be leading the charge again when the US defend the trophy in Wales two years from now

The meticulous US captain Paul Azinger, centre, did his homework while the European captain Nick Faldo made mistakes.
The meticulous US captain Paul Azinger, centre, did his homework while the European captain Nick Faldo made mistakes.

After having the Ryder Cup wrenched from their hands at Valhalla, the bad news for Europe is that Paul Azinger could be leading the charge again when the US defend the trophy in Wales two years from now. While Azinger, unlike American Presidents, was not looking for a second term in office, he may now find it impossible to resist the groundswell of American opinion calling for him to stay on as captain.

I've seen up close how much his exhaustive Ryder Cup preparations took out of him. For the last two years he's virtually put his own career on hold, and he was set to stand down, whatever the result at Valhalla. When I spoke to him yesterday he was simply "enjoying the moment", savouring the conquest of Nick Faldo's Europe, and the Ryder Cup 2010 at Celtic Manor was an ocean and two years away. But I suspect that, in two or three months time, when he has gathered his thoughts, he may give into pressure and accept a second stint as the US captain.

While the five-point winning margin at Valhalla flattered the Americans, the key to their victory was that Azinger simply outwitted, outplayed and ultimately overwhelmed Faldo in the battle of the captains. The record books will show a score of USA 16 ½ Europe 11½ . What they won't show is that, in the team management department, Azinger was a power of strength who inspired the Americans, while Faldo made a succession of blunders which sentenced his team to defeat.

By discarding the old team selection process Azinger guaranteed America sent out a fully focused, in-form team. He surrounded his players with support and encouragement, and engineered waves of US fan fervour which was to prove hugely influential. More than any previous Ryder Cup, this was one that was won and lost by the captains. From the start, Azinger and Faldo were in the spotlight, but away from the gaze of the media, it was the meticulous Azinger who did his homework, while Faldo went from one mistake to another.

His first major error was to rely on just one vice captain for support, while Azinger had three right hand men - Ray Floyd, Dave Stockton and Olin Brown - and a succession of other assistants and friends who all chipped in to form a formidable back room team. Largely unseen in the build-up, they were everywhere when it mattered at Valhalla. Over the first two days, as the US built up a crucial advantage, Azinger shadowed his troops like a commander-in-chief leading the way at the front line, pumping up the crowd, and all the captain's men ensured each of the American two balls had reinforcements closely at hand.

If they were struggling for momentum, they had someone to turn to for inspiration. When the crowd went quiet, Team Azinger brought them to life, and the players were lifted visibly. Azinger had an answer for everything, while Faldo simply had no answers. With a solitary lieutenant in Jose Maria Olazabal, Team Faldo was nowhere to be seen as, crucially, Europe's promising start in the opening foursomes crumbled.

When the American heat was on, the Europeans needed help to negotiate the hostile route around Valhalla. But unlike Azinger's cavalry, European help was never on the way. Faldo just hadn't seen the trouble coming, and when the momentum started swinging the American's way, it was a dramatic swing. Put under pressure, with the crowd factor gathering momentum, the Europeans were alone in an increasingly hostile environment. To put them in that position was a huge mistake by Faldo.

His next mistake was to leave Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, Europe's top combination, out of the second day foursomes. Going in to Valhalla, Sergio had the best foursomes record in Ryder Cup history - eight wins out of eight - and formed a brilliant team with Westwood. A half with Kenny Perry and Jim Furyk the previous day was hardly a reason to leave them on the sidelines, and players of that calibre don't need resting.

Faldo's biggest mistake, however, came on the final day. With Europe trailing by two points and desperately needing a solid start, he sent three of his best players - Poulter, Westwood and reigning Open and US PGA champion Padraig Harrington - out last. The priority had to be to get those two points back, silence the crowd, and stop any American momentum building. But after a promising start, Europe lost the initiative, and the US rode home on a wave of emotion, with Poulter, Westwood and Harrington removed from the pressure cooker and left to simmer.

With the team they had, Europe should not have been beaten. They were always under pressure though after the first morning, but even so produced some unbelievable golf, as did the Americans. It was the highest standard of golf I've ever seen, particularly the putting. Only the Ryder Cup can produce golf like that. For the first time in many years the Americans went with the flow and allowed their home crowd to get into the Ryder Cup.

From the fairway, they only saw the flag, and went for it. They envisaged all their putts going in, and an awful lot did. This was Azinger's magic working wonders after the previous US failures. In the first media conference after practice, he refused point blank to talk about those bleak years. Everything he said was positive, inspiring. He made me think for the first time that America might win, so he was obviously going to inspire his players.

In contrast, Faldo's performance was anything but impressive, so how was he going to instill confidence in his team? He seemed to think that his players would not be influenced by the crowd. What he hadn't seen was how the crowd could influence the Americans. Europe had the better team and played fantastic golf. Faldo got something right in selecting Poulter, who was magnificent. So were Westwood, Karlsson, Justin Rose and Graeme McDowell, and there were some other great performances.

But the Americans were up to the task. Hunter Mahan has never played so well in his wildest dreams. Boo Weekley took his game to the next level. JB Holmes was inspired. And then there was Anthony Kim, rated by the Americans as the player who will emerge as the next serious challenger to Tiger Woods. Only time will tell how good he'll become, but he showed at Valhalla that he's a tremendous talent.

It was magnificent to watch. Tough for us Europeans to take. But now that the dust has settled, we can only salute captain Azinger and his troops. sports@thenational.ae (Philip Parkin is part of the BBC commentary team for this week's British Masters at The Belfry, England, and next week's column will look at how Europe's best deal with their Ryder Cup setback).