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 RYDERS ON THE STORM

HOLLA, HOLLA, VALHALLA!

Not since the 1999 Miracle at Brookline, has the U.S. Ryder Cup team tasted such sweet success.  After losing the last three meetings and five of six, the underdog Americans, sparked by six rookies and a gritty captain, finally took home the cup.

Paul Azinger, the 48 year-old Ryder Cup Captain, winner of 12 PGA tournaments and the 1993 PGA Player-of-the-year, lead the victorious American squad to a 16 1/2 - 11 ½ triumph.

Called a fighter, a cancer survivor, a competitor, and a champion, Paul Azinger proved he's all that and more.

If  I got the chance to sit down and interview the captain, this something what it might sound like.

 

Me: Your name says it all.

Azinger: You mean the ‘Zinger' nickname?

Me: No, the Dolly Madison Snack Cakes, Zingers--- They're sweet, tasty cakes filled with delicious cream inside.

Azinger: Yeah, I remember eating those as a kid. Wow, you bring back old memories.

Me: Glad you ate them, because you creamed the European's this year! I have some here, would you like one?

Azinger: No thanks.

Me: Much has been made about your set up of the golf course at Valhalla--- The re-worked greens, special cuts of the rough, speeding up the putting surfaces... The press called it the ‘Zinger Cut,' what, if any impact did that have on the competition?

Azinger: The press made a big fuss about the set up, but the truth is, both teams play on the same course, so it really doesn't matter if the cut is long, short or otherwise.

Me: Uh, based on the looks of your team, I don't think many guys would care about the [hair] cut.

Azinger: Huh?

Me: Have you seen the heads of Furyk, Cink, Stricker, Holmes and Weekley without their golf hats?

Azinger: Yeah, they're...

Me: You were going to say...follicly challenged.

Azinger: You said it, not me.

Me: After be named captain of the 37th Ryder Cup team, you requested the player selection process be changed.

Azinger: I thought the selection process was old and antiquated. The old system rewarded last years' hot players more than the current players. As captain, I want guys that are playing the best now, not last year, and I wanted more control of the team.

Me: You mean more captains' picks?

Azinger: I believe we should put today's best players on the course, so I pushed for reform.

Me: Were you happy with your picks?

Azinger: Based on the outcome, I couldn't be happier. All the guys played great.

Me: As captain of the American squad, what qualities or attributes did you bring to the team.

Azinger: I am a fighter and survivor. I experienced golf glory and personal crisis all at the same time. In 1993, I was on top of the world when I won my first major and later that year, I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma and stared death square in its face.

Me: 1993 was quite a year.

Azinger: I learned a lot. At the time, golf was the most important thing in my life, all I did was eat, breathe and sleep golf. Then the diagnosis; that put life into perspective. Life is short; live it to its fullest. Learn, live, love and laugh. That's how I live my life and that's what I tried to instill to my team.

Me: It's well known that you are one of the most charitable golf professionals. You said, " The best gift one can give, is of themselves." Is that why you're so charitable?

Azinger: I believe in giving. If everyone gave as much of themselves, this world would be a much better place.

Me: Just last week, only days before the biggest golf match of the decade, you traveled to Tennessee to play in a charity golf tournament. Wasn't that kind of risky, taking the time off for a charity golf tournament?

Azinger: No, last week I was invited to play with Justin Timberlake in his Celebrity Charity Golf Tournament in Tennessee. I think we raised a half-million dollars for charity.  I felt that my appearance would not only inspire the team, but others as well.

Me: I heard you were paired up with  Kenny G, and Alice Cooper.

Azinger: No, it was Ray Manzarek of The Doors.

Me: Who? Ray who?

Azinger: He is the keyboardist of The Doors. Ray told me, "It's your time. It's our time to take back the Ryder Cup." He called the team, "Ryders on the Storm," and he wrote a song.  

Me: He wrote a song?

Azinger: He's a huge golf fan who wrote an inspirational song for the team.

Me: Did you sing it to the team?

Azinger: Laughs. Sing? Me? No, I read it to the team.

Me: Can you read it for me?

 

Ryders on the storm

Ryders on the storm

Into this clubhouse we're born

Into this course were thrown

Like a team without their throne

A golfer all alone

Ryders on the storm

 

There's a killer on the course

A Euro shows no remorse

Set your sights on prey

Let your team play

If you give these men a chance

They'll take you to the dance

 

Paul ya gotta love your men

Paul ya gotta love your men

Take them by the hand

Make them understand

The world on you depends

Our life may forever end

Paul ya gotta love your men

Ryders on the storm

 

Me: That's profound. You did take a chance; you started six rookies and four captains' picks.

Azinger: Life is a gamble. I gathered the guys in a circle, we all took each other's hand and I made them understand, that no matter the outcome, you can always hang your head high if you do your best. Go out there and give it your best. That's all I could say.

Me: C'mon, I know you said a lot more than that! You are a master motivator, coach, psychologist and mentor. What did you do to motivate your team?

Azinger: You almost forgot, comedian.

Me: Really?

Azinger: It's not just motivating the team, because these guys really want to win. They're all superb, professional golfers, capable of winning. It's the camaraderie, synergy and chemistry that I feel was missing on past teams. I look at the Euro's and they're all laughing and having fun. Our guys were un-emotional, stone-faced, stiff...businesslike.

Me: Businesslike is good?

Azinger: I needed to loosen it up so, I took the team to this hole-in-the-wall bar. We played foosball, shot some pool, had some beers and told them why they were chosen and why they're going to win. 

Me: Okay, your captains picks, tell me why you chose them?

Azinger: First, I chose Hunter Mahan. He has a great look; frosted hair and flashy clothes.  He's got style and flair, something that was sorely missing on the team.

Me: You chose him because of his flamboyant clothes and tinted hair?

Azinger: Not only that, his name says it all... "The Hunter."

Me: Yeah, I get it...shoot to kill.

Azinger: Exactly!

Me: What about Steve Stricker?

Azinger: You mean "S.S.? The Secret Service? My thought was, the Euro's get wind of him, and they'll all be "Stricken."

Me: Sort of like being stricken with the Asian Bird Flu or Mad Cow Disease?

Azinger: Maybe a just a case of pneumonia from a cold "Kentucky Rain."

Me: J.B. Holmes?

Azinger: You mean, Just Bomb it Holmes? Was there any question? This course is set up perfectly for him, besides he's from Kentucky, so I knew he would spark the crowd.

Me: You purposely wanted to fire up the crowds at Valhalla. Was that your way of ‘Zinging' the Euros?

Azinger: They don't call me ‘Zinger' for nothing!  Holla, Holla, Valhalla! Make them scream!

Me: Lastly, Chad Campbell. He's probably the most controversial pick?

Azinger: We're in an election year, and I remember two elections ago in Florida, when George W. Bush defeated Al Gore. There was the controversy over the voting ballots. I guess some of the holes were not punched thoroughly on the ballots, leaving ‘swinging chads.' I thought, well if it worked for George Dubya, it would work for me. So, I chose my guy, ‘Swinging' Chad Campbell.

Me: What about the eight players that made the team? What did you say to them?

Azinger: I told Stewart Cink to channel himself.

Me: Huh? Channel himself?

Azinger: Cink. As in sink putts.

Me: Ben Curtis

Azinger: Ben is so solid and laid back, I just told him to be himself; think, "Ben there, done that!"

Me: Jim Furyk

Azinger: I told him to, "Unleash his inner Furyk."

Me: Anthony Kim

Azinger: You mean "A.K. 47" or "America's Killer"? I just told him to unleash his weapons and start an all out assault on the Euros. Keep firing!

Me: Between "The Hunter," "Just Bomb it" Holmes and "A.K. 47", you have some serious artillery!

Azinger: It's a war out there! I knew it was going to be a battle in Kentucky; like nothing seen since the Civil War. 

Me: Justin Leonard

Azinger: The European team called his winning putt at Brookline "lucky." The European press called him J.L., "Just Lucky." I beg to differ. Justin is a tremendous putter, maybe our best. I call him, J.L., "Just Lovely."

Me: Phil Mickelson

Azinger: The press likes to call him "Choke" Mickelson, I told him he's Phil "The Thrill" Mickelson. Just go out there and do your thing.

Me: Kenny Perry

Azinger: You mean K.P.? He's the steadiest player we have. I told Kenny to "Keep Playing" and "Keep Putting."

Me: Lastly, Boo Weekley

Azinger: Laughs. I think that's something Detroit Lions fans are familiar with! No, seriously, he's the Boy Wonder. I told him to fire up the crowds. With their chants of "Boo," the European's will think they're winning, but in fact they're cheers of boo, and they're losing!

Me: Will you run for captaincy for the 2010 team?

Azinger: I don't know, I'm going to savor this one for some time.

Me: After the PGA Championship last month at Oakland Hills, Corey Pavin was said to be campaigning really hard for your job, your thoughts?

Azinger: I guess he's really "Pavin" the way for himself!

Me: Thanks, Paul. Good luck and congratulations on your victory!

Azinger: Thanks, Steve.

Copyright 2008 Steve Kay

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