Azinger's pairings strategy crucial to Americans in reclaiming Ryder Cup

LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- As darkness descended upon Valhalla Golf Club, the smell of victory still hung in the air. Hours earlier, the victorious U.S. Ryder Cup team celebrated in earnest, a champagne shower dousing the putting green and leaving an aroma that was hard to miss.

Fifteen years ago, just months after his greatest triumph in the game, Paul Azinger would have had difficulty noticing. Cancer treatments robbed him of his senses, and alcohol was the last thing he would have wanted, anyway.

It sure was a different scene Sunday as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain led the cheers. He managed to push all the right buttons, make all the right moves and do all the right things to assure an American victory for the first time in nine years.

Golf is an individual game, but it is hard to think of an American player or captain who embraced the concept of team golf and the Ryder Cup more than Azinger.

"He put a lot into this, his heart and soul," said Azinger's wife, Toni, amid the celebrating Americans. "It is something that he really thought about and worked on. If you ask me, it's his biggest accomplishment."

That's saying something, given Azinger's unlikely rise through the game, from a skinny junior college golfer who had difficulty breaking 80 on consecutive days, to making the PGA Tour, winning four times in 1987 and then capping his career with a 1993 playoff victory over Greg Norman at the PGA Championship.

Azinger, 48, was just 33 at the time of his major victory, with more wins seemingly to come. But an aching shoulder led to tests and a cancer diagnosis. Azinger lost all his hair via chemotherapy, and although he did return to win one more time and make one more Ryder Cup team (his fourth overall as a player,) his game was never the same.

Perhaps that is why this Ryder Cup meant so much to him. It didn't hurt to have England's Nick Faldo, who denied Azinger the 1987 British Open and was a Ryder Cup foil several times, as the opposing captain. And it certainly didn't hurt that Azinger is a competitive cuss who doesn't like to lose, is fiercely loyal to his country and wanted America to claim the Ryder Cup again.

"This is bigger to me than anything I've ever been a part of," Azinger said. "I just can't tell you. … It was the plan coming together and the guys embracing it."

There is a fine line between winning and losing the Ryder Cup, and Sunday's 16½-11½ outcome is not nearly as lopsided as the five-point victory would suggest. A few putts here or there, and the final matches that were rendered meaningless when Jim Furyk clinched the Cup with his victory over Miguel Angel Jimenez might have made things really interesting.

These biennial matches are always about the players and how they perform, as Faldo would surely attest. He got exactly zero victories out of his most-heralded players -- Sergio Garcia, Padraig Harrington and Lee Westwood.

But captains face criticism when they lose, so Azinger should be applauded for some of the changes he brought to the 37th Ryder Cup. Much was made of the new selection process (shortened mostly to one year), and getting himself four at-large selections instead of the traditional two allowed Azinger more flexibility.

Then there was the flip-flopping of formats, switching to alternate shot on Friday morning instead of the usual best-ball, which had seen the U.S. fall behind in each of the past three defeats.

"It looks like a good move now, doesn't it?" Azinger said after the U.S. won Friday's morning session for the first time since 1991. "It wasn't so much that we play better one way or the other. It was just change for the sake of change."

Perhaps the biggest idea Azinger brought to the team was something he had been pondering for years, a theory he had told his assistant captains about more than a year ago, before they were even named to their posts.

He had this plan to divide the team into three groups of four players and have them bond. He put Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Justin Leonard and Phil Mickelson in one group. Then he had Kenny Perry, Boo Weekley, J.B. Holmes and Furyk in another. And finally Stewart Cink, Steve Stricker, Ben Curtis and Chad Campbell in the third.

Those foursomes practiced and played together throughout the week. And it's no coincidence that they went off in that order during Sunday singles.

"We just decided to come together in small groups; that was it," Azinger said. "They were never going to come out of that little group."

Three of Azinger's captain picks -- Holmes, Mahan and Campbell -- won two matches each and suffered just one loss among them. The six rookies combined to go 9-4-8. Azinger found excellent pairings in Mickelson-Kim (1-1-1), Mahan-Leonard (2-0-1) and Weekley-Holmes (1-0-1).

The result? The U.S. has just its second victory in the Ryder Cup since 1993.

Maybe Azinger ought to consider doing this again two years from now in Wales. It is unlikely, given the PGA of America's penchant for moving the position around. The last captain to do the job two separate times was Jack Nicklaus in 1987. And the last time a U.S. captain held the post for back-to-back Ryder Cups was Ben Hogan in 1947 and 1949.

Still, it's an intriguing idea, especially given all the new ones brought to this U.S. Ryder Cup effort. When asked about it late Sunday night, several of his players chanted "Zinger in '10, Zinger in '10."

And for the first time all week, Azinger was nearly speechless.

"I'm not going to think about it," he said. "I'm just going to stay up all night and party with my boys."

One more time, Azinger had the right answer.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.