US Bent on Putting Sorry Past, in the Past

LOUISVILLE, Ky - The past? History is bunk, said Henry Bunk. That wasn’t specifically what Paul Azinger argued for this year’s American Ryder Cup team, his Ryder Cup team. But the thought was the same.

“This is a different team,’’ said Azinger, the captain. “This is a different time.’’

Indeed, this is a time when the United States leads after Day 1, which it hasn’t done the past five Cups.

This is a time when Phil Mickelson played the way we’ve been waiting for him to play, when Hunter Mahan played the way Paul Azinger believed he could play.

Three straight Ryder Cup losses for the U.S., five losses in the last six matches. And maybe, because the European team is stronger and more experienced, America will end up losing once more. But after Friday, the U.S. was in front, 5½ points to 2½.

After Friday there was a belief that maybe this American squad half-composed of rookies, kids who Mickelson said were at an advantage because they hadn’t been around the defeats, could end the agony.

“I had no hopes,’’ said Azinger. But he had plans. And ideas.

He connected with the great champion Muhammad Ali, who lives in Louisville.

He paired together the two Texans, the vet Justin Leonard and his captain’s pick Hunter Mahan, and they won two matches.

He linked Mickelson and Anthony Kim because that’s what Mickelson wanted, and they finished the day unbeaten.

“We haven’t led in a long time,’’ said Azinger. It was 1995, when America also won. “So we’re real happy. There were nice comebacks today. Everybody just stayed on point, stayed in the present and kept going. ... But we’re not even to the halfway point yet, and we know how good Europe is.’’

Three days this trans-Atlantic competition runs, two-man matches, foursomes or alternate shots, and four-ball or better-ball each of the first two days. Then 12 singles matches Sunday, the final day. A team needs 14½ points to take the cup. The U.S. is more than a third of the way there.

Tiger Woods isn’t around, still rehabilitating the surgically repaired knee. Mickelson said he didn’t want to be the spiritual leader. But he was the spiritual leader. Twice he and the 22-year-old Kim, like Phil a Southern California native, were 3 down in a match. And twice they came back.

In the morning to get a half with Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson, when Kim sank a 5-footer on 18 for a par. In the afternoon to get a 2-up victory over Harrington and Graeme McDowell when Mickelson sank a 20-footer on 17 to break the tie.

Mickelson had a 9-12-4 record in the Cup - embarrassing for the No. 2 golfer in the world. But Friday he had a 1-0-1 record in the 37th Cup matches. There was a feeling after Phil and Kim, first off the tee, got some points, everybody would get some points.

And except for Steve Stricker and Ben Curtis, in the afternoon better-ball, every American did get some points. Stricker and Curtis were whipped, 4 and 2, by Ian Poulter and Justin Rose, two Englishmen who spend most of their playing time on the U.S. PGA Tour. It was the only match the Euros won.

The Americans are relaxed. And showing courage, which hasn’t always been the case. Stewart Cink and Chad Campbell came from 3-down to overtake Rose and Poulter in the morning matches, 1 up. Mahan and Leonard were 2-down before winning over Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey. And Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes came from 2-down and finished tied with Lee Westwood and Soren Hansen.

Boo, in his first Ryder Cup, holed a 40-footer for a birdie and then did something resembling a barn dance, hoisting his arms skyward and listening to the partisan crowd holler, “Boooooo.’’

“You can’t control the crowd,’’ said Weekley. “But we were trying to keep them positive.’’

Which the U.S. team has to be. At last. The past four Cups America has been behind quickly. In 1999, at The Country Club outside Boston, it came back in singles, Leonard holing that memorable and controversial birdie, the wives and seemingly everybody else dashing onto the green before Jose Maria Olazabal had his chance to putt.

The U.S. was champion that year. The last time. But that’s past. Paul Azinger is only concerned with the present.

As a reporter since 1960, Art Spander is a recipient of the Dick McCann Memorial Award -- given for his long and distinguished career covering professional football -- and a spot in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. He's also honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA of America. His columns appear in RealClearSports on Wednesdays and Fridays.

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