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Wednesday, September 26, 2012
Azinger, Strange share Cup memories

By Bob Harig
ESPN.com

MEDINAH, Ill. -- Paul Azinger and Curtis Strange are excellent sources when it comes to the Ryder Cup.

The former major champions who will be working Friday's telecast for ESPN both played in the Ryder Cup when it was at its most contentious. Both have memorable moments as players and as captains. Both know what it's like to make the team or be chosen as an at-large selection by the captain.

They've enjoyed the highs of victory, the lows of defeat and every emotion in between.

Azinger played four times: 1989-91-93-02, meaning he was on two winning teams, a losing team and one that tied. He was 5-7-3 overall in 15 matches, including 2-0-2 in singles. He captained the U.S. to its only victory since the turn of the century in 2008 at Valhalla.

Strange played five times: 1983-85-87-89-95. He was a captain's pick of Lanny Wadkins in 1995. In 2002, Strange picked Azinger for his team. Strange was 6-12-2 in 20 matches and 2-3 in singles. He captained the U.S. when it lost at The Belfry, the matches having been delayed a year because of the 9/11 tragedy.

We talked to both Azinger and Strange to get their thoughts on several subjects related to their own experiences headed into the 39th Ryder Cup at Medinah.

Curtis Strange

Best memory as a player
"I actually have two. Just playing and being part of the first one in Palm Beach in '83 was something I never experienced before in my life. It always comes down to who you are playing and how you are playing. I birdied the last four holes 'in 89 when I was to down with 4 to go to enable us to halve the Cup. Finishing like that was exciting. We [Strange and Ian Woosnam] were the last group. And I won my match to enable us as a team to halve the match (14-14). But they retained the Cup."

Favorite gamesmanship story
"We don't have enough time. For the players, as aggravating as that can be, it's part of the Ryder Cup. Especially in Seve [Ballesteros'] case. God rest his soul. You've heard of him coughing. That happened every time. Stretching match play rules. He just got under your skin. And I think he did exactly what he was supposed to do. He thrived on it. I got upset at myself because I allowed him to get under my skin."

Best memory as a captain
"The week itself was the greatest week of my life for [wife] Sarah and I. We absolutely had a ball. Every captain probably says the same thing. All the preparation before is fun, it's informative. It's exciting to lead up, but the real nuts of it is being captain during the matches and getting into the competition. That was fantastic. I had 12 players who listened, who wanted direction. They were fantastic. They were all fun. And this stuff about [the U.S. team] not coming together as a team is hogwash. I just tried to point them in the right direction. If they needed motivation, they were in the wrong place."

Curtis Strange
Curtis Strange captained the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2002 at The Belfry in England. The matches were originally scheduled for 2001 until 9/11 postponed the biennial event.

How does the pressure compare to contending in a major?
"It's so different. I think the pressure can get the best of you in a Ryder Cup, more than an individual tournament. You're allowed to let your emotions run freely. Every other day playing the game you keep them in check. You get too up or down. That bothered me. If I kept it in check, I was more in control. A lot of the pressure in the Ryder Cup is it's us versus them, it's me against him, match play, win or lose. If you don't win it's going to be magnified. You let your emotions go and it means a lot of pressure."

Toughest decision
"I'd say it was the at-large picks. The captain has two real processes to go through. The first one is the captain's picks. The other is to leave four players out each round. You can only play eight and I didn't like doing that. The picks, I like how Davis [Love] put it, you're plugging holes. I picked [Scott] Verplank to play alternate shot and I told him that's why I picked him. But the toughest was sitting four out during each session."

Easiest decision
"I don't think there is an easy decision. Whatever you think it might be, you still second guess yourself. You go through every detail. That's the part of the Ryder Cup you really enjoy and everything is about who you put together. I don't think there is an easy one."

Best piece of advice you got prior
"I called every living Ryder Cup captain and talked to them for a while on the phone. I figured I might get a little nugget somewhere. But I also wanted to give them the respect I think they deserved. I enjoyed every one. You couldn't get them off the phone. I had every living Ryder Cup captain at the time, Sam [Snead] and Byron [Nelson] were still with us. I had them write my team a letter. You can say whatever you want. They all did it. Put together a leather-bound book with the captain's picture on the left and the letter on the right. All in order. It was the neatest thing I ever did. Players cherished them. Letters were all over the lot as far as what they said. But the best advice? More than once, just keep it simple, you know the players, you know the game. That's it."

What would you have done differently?
"On the first day I had [originally had] Tiger with Azinger in foursomes [in the afternoon] and I had [Mark] Calcavecchia in the morning in four-ball with Tiger. Calcavecchia is a birdie machine. And he's comfortable as hell with Tiger. I thought they'd make a good best-ball team. I thought that was a no-brainer. And then I had Azinger with [Tiger in foursomes] because he's cocky enough and comfortable enough Tiger wasn't going to intimidate him.

"Zinger is a straight driver, perfect for alternate shot [foursomes]. But [Azinger and Calcavecchia] came to me the night before and said they wanted to switch. This was before the pairings came out. And if you feel that way, it's done. That's fine. And they both lost.

"Azinger played best ball with Tiger [they lost 1-up]. Calc was undefeated in alternate shot in his career. And I wouldn't have made that switch. That night [after Day 1], I went to Tiger and I said I need you to win for our psyche and to knock out their confidence. He asked to be put with Davis [Love III on Saturday for Day 2's matches] and they went 2-0. It's interesting to look back."

Paul Azinger


Best memory as player
"I've got so many. All my best memories as a player happened in the team rooms. One time it was Ken Green in 1989 when he stood up in our team room and made the comment that he had preconceived ideas of many of the individuals in the room and that his opinions weren't good. Almost with his voice cracking he wanted everybody to know he felt differently now. It was a touching moment.

Anthony Kim, Paul Azinger
Paul Azinger celebrated with his team after winning the 2008 Ryder Cup at Valhalla. The victory was the first for the Americans since 1999.

"Another favorite was Chip Beck in the team room, and he made a comment I'll never forget [in 1993]. He and John Cook beat Monty [Colin Montgomerie] and Nick Faldo [in Saturday afternoon four-ball, 2-up]. They were supposed to get beat, had no business winning. Chip's comment after they beat those guys on 18, I'll never forget it as long as I live. We were in the team room that night. And he said, 'I just want everyone in here to know that the will to win can overcome a mechanical breakdown like I had out there today.' And we just busted out laughing."

Best memory as captain
"I wrote a book about the whole experience and tried to portray it as accurately as I could remember because it was unbelievable. To pick a single moment might have been when Boo [Weekley] was telling us the orangutan story when we were getting ready to go to the gala dinner. [Weekley had once tried to wrestle an orangutan at a county fair and got knocked out.] The guys' stomachs were sore from laughing so hard."

Toughest decision
"Probably trying to decide who to put in the envelope in case there was an injury. [Once the Ryder Cup starts, there are no replacements, so if someone is injured going into Sunday singles, each captain has to have someone to sit; both teams are given a half point if that occurs.] I didn't have a lot of tough decisions. When I went with three, four-man teams, it was pretty easy. As far as who to pick if one of their team members was hurt and couldn't play. ... that is difficult to decide. That's a secret I will take to my grave."

Easiest decision
"The easiest was to know who I would put out first on Sunday. I just felt like I wanted Anthony Kim out first. He was playing great. They would put one of their inspirational guys out early. It turned out to be Sergio. Figured nobody was going to beat Anthony Kim that day. I knew he'd be an inspiration to our players. It was pretty easy. [Kim won, 5 & 4.]"

Favorite gamesmanship story
"When Chip Beck and I played Woosnam and Faldo [in 1989 at The Belfry]. It was just a birdie barrage. We were 1 up through 10 holes and they had holed three shots from off the green. Woosie chipped in again on 10. They've chipped in three times and we're still 1 up.

"I had missed the green way left on 11. Chip hit it right below the hole about 10 feet. Woosie and Faldo were 12 to 15 feet exactly pin high from opposite sides of the hole. I was out because I had missed the green. I said to Chip why don't you just putt. So we made that decision. As we are lining up our putt, Faldo walked around and started reading Chip's putt. It was nowhere near his line.

"I said, 'What are you doing?' Faldo said, 'I'm just trying to offer a helping hand.' It was just gamesmanship. He was doing anything he could to slow us down. It wasn't ugly. It was just gamesmanship. We don't need your help, is what I said. And Chip buried it right in the center."

Pressure compared to major championship
"There's a difference. The difference is that you've played yourself into contention at the major. And so nervousness and all of that is part of what any big stage athlete deals with. And you can cope with it and it's easier to cope with when you are performing decently and you played your way there.

"At the Ryder Cup, it's equally as big a stage or bigger and you may not be peaking at that moment. There it becomes very difficult to not become outcome oriented. You begin to fear a result. The importance of staying in the moment becomes more and more critical. Pressure is multiplied because you are not necessarily on and it's from the first tee shot.

"For me what always took pressure off was I looked at the guy I was playing and thought he was just as nervous as me. I didn't want him to celebrate at my expense. My anxieties were always the night before or the morning of. When you got on the first tee after the first shot, it kind of went away.

"The only time it didn't go away was when I was the last match out in '93. I couldn't get it out of my head it could come down to us. [He played Faldo in singles and they halved.] It's completely different. The Ryder Cup can define you."

Best piece of advice you got prior?
"I surrounded myself with big thinkers. I had decided on the small group concept long before I was even captain. Ron Braun asked me how I would put them in groups. The advice he gave me was in question form: Had you ever considered putting them together by like personalities? I had not and that's what we did. I thought that was great advice. I got great advice from [2006 captain] Tom Lehman. He didn't feel we were as aggressive in match play as they are. I beat the aggressive drum."

What would you have done differently?
There wasn't a whole lot I'd do differently. I just really felt I got the right people around me and I think that was the real key. What I'm happiest about is I surrounded myself with people that could make me better. I don't know if I could have done anything differently."