A lighter, brighter Ryder Cup

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. – This can’t be what Hunter Mahan compared to slavery. No way this is the same offering, either in form or function, that sent Mark Calcavecchia to weep among the dunes at Kiawah Island in 1991 and nearly kept Zach Johnson from putting his tee into the ground because he was shaking so badly before his singles bout against Darren Clarke at The K Club in 2006.

Twenty-four hours and counting before the most recent edition of the game’s Transatlantic showdown and the Valhalla vibe is more Ryder Cup Improv than Ryder Cup Intense.

The 37th matches are a punch line to a joke that begins, “Two Euros walk into a bar … .” An open mic night for amateur comedians who appear determined to take a break from a proceeding that is normally about as much fun as a 4-hour layover at Newark airport.

Ryder Cup captains used to tussle over the “underdog” title, but that was before America dropped five of the last six matches. This time around, not even Nick Faldo, the cagey tactician he is, can lay claim to that label with a straight face.

But then, with the clock counting down and the pre-match hype reaching dizzying media-driven levels, there weren’t many straight faces at Valhalla. Not on either side of the Atlantic divide.

On Wednesday, Captain America Paul Azinger smiled as he referred to Team Europe’s spies. But a jab that may once have ruffled international feathers, drew only cheekiness from the Euro skipper: “My spies are so secret I don’t even know who they are.”

’Zinger seems to have assumed a master of ceremonies role in a roast with only a single rule – have fun.

Captain Chuckle opened his Wednesday meet and greet with a 10-minute explanation on the merits of the great American game of foosball and his visit to a local “crackhouse for foosball players.”

“There wasn’t a stick of furniture in his house. There were people willy-nilly all over the place,” Azinger said of the impromptu foosball tournament he crashed late Saturday night. “Not five people knew who I was.”

Former U.S. captains Hal Sutton and Tom Lehman may have preached merrymaking, but Azinger has been remarkably merry.

They say the Euros have more fun at this biennial bash. That the Cup unites countries and classes into a single, joyous entity. Yet anyone who watched the home side go through their pre-match paces at Valhalla on Wednesday knows that not only are these guys good, but also a little goofy.

Boo Weekley is no Woody Austin and there’s little chance he’ll don a diving mask during a match – the pride of Milton, Fla., is not above tossing a line and lure into one of Valhalla’s muddy ponds, however – but there’s little doubt he’s the pitching wedge that’s stirring the U.S. cocktail.

Among Boo’s best already this week:

• On his stylish team duds: “I can tell you right now these pants I’ve got on are probably the most expensive thing I’ve ever owned. These things here, they felt like a pair of silk underwear when you’re getting ready to go hunting.”

• On America’s underdog role: “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.”

The Ryder Cup rookie also is something of a sage for the U.S. side, infecting the locker room with his relaxed and homey brand of humor.

“It never hurts to laugh. You should always laugh at least once or twice a day,” Weekley said. “I laughed halfway around the golf course today.”

Even normally stoic Justin Leonard was seen with something resembling a smirk Wednesday.

This one is different, at least on the eve of the eve of the matches. Maybe it’s the captains, an odd couple who seem to share a genuine respect for each other as well as a healthy dose of witty banter that dates to their pairing in the television tower.

Or maybe it’s the U.S. lineup. A group that includes six rookies and no Tiger Woods could only assume the only way to avoid the crushing intensity of the Ryder Cup is through joke.

The irreverent vibe also has something to do with the venue. In these parts UK is a reason to bleed Wildcat blue, not break into a chorus of “God Save the Queen.” Welcome to the Redneck Cup, where formal introductions have been replaced by rimshots and a steady stream of one-liners.

“Take my caddie. Please.” Ba-da boom.

Asked about the nerve-wrecking demands of team play, Justin Rose could only smile. “Fun and games,” the Englishman sighed.

It’s not always been that way for the Americans. Just ask Calcavecchia. But so far, this Ryder Cup has been all fun and games for the home side. At least for one more day.

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