Azinger wary of the 'scary' depth of European challenge

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The Independent Online

When the US Ryder Cup captain announces on the eve of the USPGA Championship that he fully expects a European to win the season's final major and that he sees them as overwhelming favourites to prevail in the match that is taking place on American soil in just six weeks time, then his comments must be classed as being either very cynical or very honest. All the evidence here yesterday suggested that Paul Azinger was merely being very honest.

Whatever the truth or the devious intentions, this was certainly a different Azinger to his image in Europe, that has taken on an almost pantomime-villain quality since the interview earlier this year in which he labelled his counterpart, Nick Faldo, a "prick". Depicted as Captain America, the gung-ho skipper on the mission to restate the Starred and Striped superiority over a blue and gold unit of over-achieving, majorless Guinness-swiggers, the expectation was that Azinger would go into next month's biennial dust-up in Kentucky declaring a fourth consecutive defeat as "out of the question".

Well, to Azinger it is anything but that; in fact, to his mind it could just be highly likely. "When I look down the Europe team that is a scary list for me," he said, before going on to admit that even the wholesale changes he has made to the selection procedure might not be enough. "If Europe beats us again," he added, "then it's time to say maybe they are beating us because they are just that much better. They are great at team-play and they seem to have some kind of chemistry that works really, really well. All you can do is just take your hat off to their dominance. In order to beat those guys, we are going to have to do something special."

Naturally, Azinger is not saying his side will not be capable of it, but he does believe that because of the absence of a certain world No 1, that special production will be all the more difficult to direct. "I don't see one single positive that Tiger Woods isn't on our team," he said. "I can't imagine how you can argue a team would be better off without arguably the greatest player that has ever lived. It really puts Europe in an advantageous place. There's just no question about it."

Azinger has plainly take the withdrawal hard, so hard that he is still determined to extract some influence from Woods, despite being rebuked in his audacious bid to make him an assistant captain. Yesterday afternoon he was planning on phoning Woods's agent, Mark Steinberg (even the Ryder Cup captain does not have a direct line to Tiger), to see whether his client had any opinions on the match he would like to offer. Should Woods answer in the affirmative that would be some call to eavesdrop, not least when it came to his views on some of the American characters in the team-room. Or, indeed, on Faldo himself.

Woods is known not to hold the Briton in the highest esteem, although Azinger wisely chose to distance himself from his own gratuitous insults littered in an interview with a British Sunday newspaper. "I regret saying that," he said. "I was referring to two different Nicks. There's the old Nick and the new Nick. But we shot a commercial together the other day and we get along just fine. If you want to make a big deal out of it, you can, but I think it's fairly a dead issue between the two of us now."

Perhaps for him it is, but the build-up to Valhalla will inevitably be dominated by the rivalry. No issue will be considered beyond exhumation in that merry dig.

Azinger confesses to be aware of that, but is clinging to the belief that the muckraking will only come from the British end of the media. Yesterday he sounded positively sympathetic for Faldo when detailing why his opponents' two wildcard picks will be that much more fraught than his own four choices. "The European press is much harder than in the US and Nick could get tabloided to death," he said. "It's harder for him to leave out two from Sergio [Garcia], [Paul] Casey, [Ian] Poulter and Monty [Colin Montgomerie]. Just the way the list is looking, for me it won't be case of 'oh gosh, why didn't you pick that guy?' For Nick, it might be."

Nick – "new Nick", that is – will be praying that, come decision time, at least two of the above will have made their way into the automatic positions and these next four days could be crucial in that regard. Faldo is fortunate in one sense as the European qualification race runs for another three weeks after this event, while the American deadline falls on Sunday evening.

Saying that, Azinger has negotiated himself three weeks thereafter to decide on his picks and he reiterated his intention to select purely on form and not experience. He also emphasised his desire for one of his men to strike a blow for the team here, but again bowed to the might of the European challenge, despite them bizarrely boasting no USPGA champion in 78 years.

"I would love for an American to win this tournament, but I expect the Europeans to contend," said Azinger. "I think that there's going to be a lot of Europeans who played Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills in 2004 and have a lot of confidence on this course. It would not surprise me one bit if a European won." Surprise, no: hurt, yes. This is still Azinger, after all.

Club class James Corrigan's three to follow at Oakland Hills

*Padraig Harrington (Irl; best price 20-1, Ladbrokes)

Loves a slog as he proved when retaining the Claret Jug last month. His short game will be priceless on the sloping greens of Oakland Hills.

*Anthony Kim (US; best price 30-1, Paddy Power)

The 23-year-old will win a major one day and showed enough at the Open to signify that day will come soon. Has it all, including the ego.

*Robert Karlsson (Swe; best price 70-1, Tote)

Ticks the two Oakland Hills boxes – drives it long, putts it well. And a big word has gone around the range for the tall Swede.