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By DOUG FERGUSON
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Paul Azinger had pairings in his pocket and butterflies in his stomach.
As the last of his American players headed to the 10th tee for the final practice session Thursday at the Ryder Cup, Azinger acknowledged some nerves for the first time all week at Valhalla.
It was different from being a player. He felt more like a parent sending his child off to college.
Azinger has done all he can to stop Europe’s recent dominance in the Ryder Cup. He overhauled the qualifying process to field the best team. He set the course up just like he wanted, with moderate rough that should yield lots of birdies. He tried to convince his players that the past – Europe has won three straight and five of the last six – means nothing.
“It’s like drawing back a bow string,” he said, motioning like an archer. “You pull it back for two years, and now you’ve got to let it fly. All you can do is hope you’ve got it pointed in the right direction.”
He turned to Phil Mickelson and Anthony Kim to set the right course.
Mickelson and Kim, who have been asking for a partnership over the last month, will be the opening foursomes match Friday morning against double major champion Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson.
“The whole team is anxious to play,” Mickelson said. “Anthony and myself have been talking about this for some time. I love that we are able to get off in the first group and get out and hit the first shots because again, we’ve been wanting this day to come.”
Turns out Azinger was toying with the press about pairing Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes to fire up their home crowd in Kentucky.
He put Perry in the final morning match with reliable Jim Furyk, but they face Europe’s most formidable pair in Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood. Garcia is 8-0 in foursomes, while Westwood is unbeaten in his last 10 team matches.
“Sergio and I have played well together in the past and taken in a few points for the European cause, so we will be looking to do the same again tomorrow,” Westwood said.
Justin Leonard, whose 45-foot putt at Brookline in 1999 gave the Americans their last victory, will play with Hunter Mahan against Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey, while Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell take on the English duo of Justin Rose and Ian Poulter.
The final practice day included an inspirational visit by Muhammad Ali, who posed with both teams on opposite sides of the golf course. European captain Nick Faldo was so moved that his voice quivered and eyes glistened when talking about meeting the heavyweight champ.
“An incredible moment,” he said.
Now all that’s left is to see how this heavyweight fight takes shape.
The Americans have not led after any session on any day at the Ryder Cup since winning at Brookline. And they have not led after the opening session of four matches since 1991 at Kiawah Island.
“We have six rookies on the team, which I think is a good thing,” said Steve Stricker, one of those rookies at age 41. “We haven’t experienced some of those defeats in the previous years. And I think it’s important that we do get off to a good start to gain some momentum and just roll from there. It’s a long competition. There’s five rounds. So if you do get behind, there’s plenty of time to make it up.”
Friday and Saturday feature four matches of foursomes (alternate shot) and four matches of fourballs (better ball), with the Ryder Cup concluding Sunday with 12 singles matches.
Of the 28 points available, Europe as the defending champion only needs 14 to retain the cup.
The Americans will be without Tiger Woods, the No. 1 player in the world with 14 majors and 75 victories worldwide, although there is no talk about an asterisk because they haven’t been winning the Ryder Cup when he was playing.
“It’s one of the few events we’ve been to where Tiger really has not been mentioned at all,” Faldo said. “The Ryder Cup is bigger than any one player. We play for points. Tiger has not crossed my mind this week.”
Faldo’s pairings were no surprise.
A British photographer captured them with his zoom lens when Faldo whipped out his notepad during Wednesday practice, and while Faldo jokingly said it was a list of sandwiches for his team, his pairings were exactly what was on the slip of paper.
The only secret to the Ryder Cup, just like most any other tournament, is making putts.
And no team has putted like Europe.
“The guys have been on good form,” Faldo said. “We know golf. We understand golf. We start back at level ground with America, and we will do our utmost to move forward. That’s really it.”
Faldo is the most celebrated European player in Ryder Cup history, having set records for most teams (11) and most points (25). Unlike previous captains, however, he has been somewhat of an outcast since he last played the Ryder Cup in 1997 at Valderrama.
Mark James famously trashed Faldo’s good-luck note in 1999, and he has been missing from European camaraderie the last three matches, getting no closer than the broadcast booth.
But he has four rookies who know only the Faldo that won six majors, not the aloof player with singular drive to the top. And typical of most European teams, this is a happy bunch full of laughter and purpose.
“I’m loving every minute of this,” Faldo said. “This really is the best experience I’ve ever had as a non-player, inside and outside the ropes. This is the most special week of my life right now, and we haven’t even started yet.”