Captain guides U.S. to elusive Ryder Cup

Martin Rogers
Yahoo! Sports

The moment of victory came at 5:19 p.m. ET, when Jim Furyk accepted Miguel Angel Jimenez's outstretched right hand and a sea of red shirts melted into hugs, tears and redemption.

For an enraptured Kentucky crowd, a breathless television audience and 24 of the world's finest players, it brought an end to three days of thrilling drama, capped by a see-sawing final afternoon that finally saw the United States win the Ryder Cup for the first time in nine years.

Yet for U.S. captain Paul Azinger, it was the end of a much longer journey, one which followed an intricate roadmap of precision and methodology to blast away the crushing memories of three straight defeats.

Azinger's clarity of vision throughout the week was exceptional, but it was the foresight he showed in demanding change to the sluggish and failing selection system that most influenced the outcome.

"I poured my heart and soul into this for two years," said Azinger, a first-time captain. "And the players put their heart and soul into it all week.

"Once the matches started it was pretty bad (emotionally), it was a helpless feeling. But we came in here with a concept and the players were totally supportive. They were a cohesive unit."

This was a team that was built – and further evolved – into the image of its fist-pumping, chest-beating, all-action leader.

Azinger wanted warriors with an intensity of focus and nerves icy enough to withstand the challenge of a confident and tenacious opponent.

He wanted no part of the recent history of the event, except to learn from the mistakes that were made.

Gone was the arrogant superstar mentality that preceded destruction on home turf at Oakland Hills four years ago. No more boneheaded decisions like Curtis Strange's reverse stacking of his order at the Belfry in 2002. And no timid capitulation like the U.S. displayed against a wave of Irish support at the K Club the last time around.

By reading the minds of his men and, crucially, tapping into the psyche of a raucous Valhalla public, Azinger got the job done in fine style.

The most fearless of his players shone the brightest. It was no coincidence that the stars of the show – Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, Boo Weekley and J.B. Holmes – had precisely zero Ryder Cup experience between them. And two of them, Mahan and Holmes, were captain's picks. Those rookies were untainted by past failure and determined to usher in a new era: their own. Azinger seized upon their spirit and the fresh mentality that carried none of the hesitation caused by past failure.

Kim, the revelation of the week for the U.S., could not have made a stronger signal of intent in Day 3's opening singles match.

He trounced Sergio Garcia, whose dismal 2008 campaign does not alter the fact that he is one of the greatest Ryder Cup players in history. But Kim destroyed him 5 and 4, firing brazenly at pin after pin, rarely conceding putts and getting the gallery into a party mood that would never fade.

"I am coming out of my skin I am so excited," said Kim after his victory. "This whole experience has been amazing. Hopefully we have got a lot more of them coming."

Mahan, Weekley and Holmes were spectacular, too.

Mahan provided one of the event's most memorable moments with a putt that evoked recollections of Justin Leonard at Brookline in 1999 when he holed out at 17 on the way to halve his match against Paul Casey.

Weekley did as Weekley does. The uncomplicated man from the Florida Panhandle put on a spectacular exhibition for his loyal band of followers, producing five birdies and an eagle to see off Oliver Wilson 4 and 2.

Holmes, the Kentucky native whose selection ahead of Rocco Mediate was questioned in some quarters, got the crowd going even more as he fought past Soren Hansen.

The final margin of victory was five points, yet this was no blowout. Europe fought with everything it had and until the final hour still had a serious chance of clinching the 14 points needed to retain the trophy.

Europe had its own heroes, and they were somewhat unexpected. Captain's pick Ian Poulter continued his superb week by beating Steve Stricker, while Justin Rose, Graeme McDowell and Robert Karlsson all stood tall.

But it was just not enough.

For the last three Ryder Cups, the European team held a drastic edge in terms of unity and spirit.

This time it was the Americans who were hungrier, stronger, feistier and more deserving of the spoils of success.

Azinger made sure of that.

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