James Lawton: Ali has Azinger lost for words

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Louisville's most famous son brought his spirit to the Valhalla golf club yesterday, posing a challenge for the US team

The more he tried to inspire his American team, the more desperate Paul Azinger seemed to become.

He talked about the recent Olympics, the coming presidential election, warfare in Iraq and Afghanistan and, finally, in what some golf aficionados worried was a nightmare reversion to the jingoistic horrors of Kiawah Island 17 years ago, he declared: "It's a great time to wear the red, white and blue and represent your country."

Strange, this floundering for a point of take-off from the captain of America, because almost within earshot, just a block and a half of downtown Louisville away, was an American who can still hold not just his nation and a bunch of multimillionaire golfers but the entire world in the palm of his hand.

Finally, on the eve of the 37th Ryder Cup, Muhammad Ali was wheeled – literally – on to the stage.

Naturally and instantly, he dominated every sun-splashed nook of it.

When final practice was suspended while the American and European teams were summoned, separately, for sport's ultimate picture call, it was the second stage of the great man's annexation of the event which, like the annual running of the Kentucky Derby at nearby Churchill Downs, was always destined to do no more than share the spotlight with arguably the greatest figure sport has ever known.

On Wednesday night the former world heavyweight champion welcomed the world to his hometown at the shining Ali Centre museum on the banks of the Ohio River, from one of whose bridges he claimed to have thrown his 1960 Olympic gold medal after being ejected from a whites-only diner. At the museum dignitaries, including the 2010 Ryder Cup hosts headed by Wales' Deputy First Minister, Ieuan Wyn Jones, eagerly shook hands with the man from whom inspiration, ever since he lost the capacity to make a speech, has been provided by his mere breathing presence.

When the ceremonials were done, he was taken around the corner to the Ryder Cup's gala dinner celebration where the players of both teams crowded around the hometown boy who conquered the world not just because of his sublime ring technique but, as his wife Lonnie explained, because of a spirit that took him beyond any challenge, any hardship.

"Muhammad Ali has always believed that a man's most vital quality is his spirit, that this is what makes true greatness, and he believes it as much today as when he first stepped into the ring all those year ago.

"He has just one weakness. He believes everything the press writes about him." At this point Ali made a circling gesture against his forehead suggesting that his wife was quite mad. However, he later applauded her so vigorously and warmly that he confounded all those of us who feared – after he made some halting public appearances, several accomplished only with the help of a Zimmer frame and minders – that he was on the point of dwindling away.

Dwindling away? Here his spirit seems to be carried on every little breeze in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike and if the players of America, so anxious to stop a run of three straight defeats by Europe, needed any emphasising of the meaning of his life to their sport and everyone else's under the sun, the job was done with poignancy and bite by the veteran golfer Lee Elder.

Elder, the first black American to make the Ryder Cup team – and play at Augusta National – sat among the crowd at the Ali Centre listening to West African tribal music – and a tribute to Ali by an up-and-coming Texan country and western star named Dustin James before declaring: "It's wonderful just to sit here and see the effect Muhammad Ali still has on anyone who comes into contact with him.

"For me, he was a light – and I know it is true of so many young African-Americans of the time. Of course, there were other heroes, people like Jackie Robinson [the first to cross baseball's colour line] but no one ever had the impact of Muhammad, and I doubt that a single sportsman ever will again."

Elder was orphaned early and lived most of his youth in extreme poverty. He learnt to play golf at night, alone, on the golf course where he caddied by day. When he made it to the PGA tour – and eventually won four tournaments – he was breaking the most extraordinary ground. At the time the US Masters saw two roles for members of the local black community: serving cocktails on the clubhouse terrace and caddying. "They were bitter times," Elder recalled, "and a young guy like me might not have had the nerve to go on if it wasn't for someone like Muhammad. You saw how he captured the world, how he was respected by people of every creed and colour, and that made all the challenges in front of someone like me suddenly seem possible."

Elder was angry and impatient as a young man, but he made it to Augusta and then to the Ryder Cup at the Greenbrier in West Virginia in 1979. He did well in the foursomes and fourballs but lost a closely fought singles with a promising young European named Nick Faldo.

"Nick didn't say much at all during the game but he was quite sociable afterwards. I think it's going to be a lot closer this year because I don't think we Americans can afford to lose a fourth straight tournament. I think it is time we levelled things up a bit. Maybe spending a little time with Muhammad Ali will have the right influence on our boys."

It would certainly seem to be a more enduring aid to seriously competitive performance from the Americans than any of the contents of Azinger's first ragbag assortment of rabble-rousing possibilities.

Iraq and Afghanistan and the increasingly rabid election exchanges might just provide a few last-minute pointers in any development of the psychological warfare between Azinger and his rival captain Faldo, but when Muhammad Ali was first wheeled on to the beautiful golf course yesterday a different kind of incentive might just have been provided.

It came from the fierce light of a man who, even while locked by the chains of disease and physical decline, can still make with one brief and restricted gesture a statement about the eternal requirements of a winning sportsman.

"Muhammad," said his wife Lonnie, "is proud to see the great golfers in his hometown. His only message to them is that the most important quality they bring is the belief in their own ability and that he hopes that they will find all the best of their spirit and their talent while they are here."

That, and some basic nerve by America's Azinger, might just make something more of a competition than was seen in Co Kildare two years ago, when even the presence of Tiger Woods brought scarcely a pause to European dominance.

If a little of Muhammad Ali cannot be absorbed, the Ryder Cup will surely slide into crisis. It would be ironic in a place where a young and brilliant American declared his unbreakable belief that he could beat the world. Not with the help of a flag-waving mob. But by the insistence of a fighting heart which still, plainly, beats with formidable strength.

Valhalla warriors: The men battling for the Ryder Cup

European Team

Captain: Nick Faldo (Eng), Age: 51, Caps: 11 (1977-97), Record: P46 W23 H4 L19, Majors: 6, Tour wins: 39

Paul Casey (Eng)

Age: 31

Caps: 2 (2004-06)

Record: Played 6 Won 3 Halved 2 Lost 1

World ranking: 36

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 8

Wild card

Only player to have finished a Ryder Cup match with a hole-in-one: that came in foursomes with David Howell. Walker Cup and World Cup winner, both with Luke Donald as partner.

Sergio Garcia (Sp)

Age: 28

Caps: 4 (1999-02-04-06)

Record: P20 W14 H2 L4

World ranking: 5

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 16

A 75 per cent success rate already makes him an all-time great. Became event's youngest-ever player at 19. No majors, but was in play-off at 2007 Open and the recent US PGA.

Soren Hansen (Den)

Age: 34

Debut

World ranking: 44

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 2

Irish Open victory in 2002 was his only European Tour success in more than 200 starts, but he won again in Germany late last season, finished eighth on the Order of Merit and sealed cup place by coming sixth and 10th in last two events.

Padraig Harrington (Ire)

Age: 37

Caps: 4 (1999-02-04-06)

Record: P17 W7 H2 L8

World ranking: 4

Majors: 3 (Open 2007-08, USPGA 2008)

Tour wins: 16

First European to make a successful defence of the Open Championship title in 102 years and then became first since 1930 to win US PGA.

Miguel Angel Jimenez (Spa)

Age: 44

Caps: 2 (1999-04)

Record: P9 W2 H2 L5

World ranking: 18

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 15

Has had more victories since turning 40 than before and biggest of the lot was the BMW PGA title in May. Assistant captain to Seve Ballesteros in 1997. Previous caps also came in US.

Robert Karlsson (Swe)

Age: 39

Caps: 1 (2006)

Record: P3 H2 L1

World ranking: 21

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 7

Eighth, fourth and seventh in first three majors this year. Did not make his Ryder Cup debut until he was 37, halving two fourballs with Paul Casey before losing singles to Tiger Woods.

Graeme McDowell (N Irl)

Age: 9

Debut

World ranking: 31

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 4

Former amateur star won on only his fourth European Tour start as a professional in 2002. Just missed out on a first cap two years later, but won in Korea this March and then added Scottish Open in July.

Ian Poulter (Eng)

Age: 32

Caps: 1 (2004)

Record: P2 W1 L1

World ranking: 25

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 8

Wild card

Brilliant second in the Open, but controversially did not play in last qualifying event when he still could have made top 10. Faldo ignored that and went for his flair despite only two top-10 finishes all year.

Justin Rose (Eng)

Age: 28

Debut

World ranking: 14

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 6

Won the European Order of Merit last year from just 12 events, starting and ending with a win and posting top-12 finishes in all four majors. Still remembered for his fourth place as a 17-year-old amateur at the 1998 Open.

Henrik Stenson (Swe)

Age: 32

Caps: 1 (2006)

Record: P3 W1 H1 L1

World ranking: 6

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 6

Sank the match-winning putt on his debut before becoming World Match Play champion in Arizona last year. Joint third with Greg Norman at Open in July and fourth at the US PGA.

Lee Westwood (Eng)

Age: 35

Caps: 5 (1997-99-02-04-06)

Record: P25 W14 H3 L8

World ranking: 12

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 28

Unbeaten in last 10 games, two short of Arnold Palmer's record. Needed wild card two years ago, but responded with three wins and two halves. Third at US Open in June, one shot from play-off.

Oliver Wilson (Eng)

Age: 28

Debut

World ranking: 48

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 0

Member of winning Walker Cup team in 2003 becomes first player to make team without ever winning a tournament. Has had seven runners-up finishes, four of them this year including play-off loss in BMW PGA Championship.

Team USA

Captain: Paul Azinger (Mass), Age: 48 Caps: 4 (1989-91-93-02), Record: P16 W5 H3 L8, Majors: 1, Tour wins: 14

Chad Campbell (Texas)

Age: 34

Caps: 2 (2004-06)

Record: P6 W1 H2 L3

World ranking: 53

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 4

Wild card

Was expected to be the next big thing in golf when he was runner-up to Shaun Micheel at the 2003 US PGA, but it just has not happened yet and he has had only a small role in last two matches.

Stewart Cink (Alabama)

Age: 35

Caps: 3 (2002-04-06)

Record: P12 P3 H4 L5

World ranking: 9

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 5

Twice a wild card, but finished third on the US points table this time. Gave his best cup display with 2006 singles win over Sergio Garcia. Runner-up to Tiger Woods in February's World Match Play.

Ben Curtis (Ohio)

Age: 31

Debut

World ranking: 33

Majors: 1 (Open 2003)

Tour wins: 3

Forced his way into the side with runners-up finish at US PGA, leaping from 21st to eighth in points race. Was ranked 396th in the world when he won the 2003 Open, the first major he had played in his life.

Jim Furyk (Pennsylvania)

Age: 38

Caps: 5 (1997-99-02-04-06)

Record: P20 W6 H2 L12

World ranking: 13

Majors: 1 (US Open 2003)

Tour wins: 16

Had Tiger Woods as his partner two years ago, but won only two out of four and lost singles to Paul Casey. Reached world No 2, but has not won so far this year.

J B Holmes (Kentucky)

Age: 26

Debut

World ranking: 55

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 2

Huge hitter and, like Kenny Perry, will be playing in his home state. Team-mate of Anthony Kim at 2005 Walker Cup and in February beat Phil Mickelson in play-off to keep FBR Open title. Real name John but goes by J B.

Anthony Kim (California)

Age: 23

Debut

World ranking: 15

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 2

Fast-rising star of the game who earns first cap just three years after being part of winning Walker Cup team. Finished second in his first PGA Tour event and following two wins this season came seventh in his first Open Championship.

Justin Leonard (Texas)

Age: 36

Caps: 2 (1997-99)

Record: P8 H5 L3

World ranking: 23

Majors: 1 (Open 1997)

Tour wins: 12

Back after missing last three matches. Yet to win a Ryder Cup game, but was America's hero in 1999. Amazing 45-foot putt on 17th led to infamous invasion of the green before opponent's putt.

Hunter Mahan (California)

Age: 26

Debut

World ranking: 37

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 1

Wild card

Ex-American junior champion and top college player was given Presidents Cup wild card last year. Won twice in foursomes with Steve Stricker, but lost other three games. Chosen despite claim that cup players are "slaves".

Phil Mickelson (California)

Age: 38

Caps: 6 (1995-97-99-02-04-06)

Record: P25 W9 H4 L12

World ranking: 2

Majors: 3 (Masters 2004-06, US PGA 2005)

Tour wins: 35

Unbeaten on his cup debut, but has had tough time in last two matches with one-and-a-half points from nine games. Had 17 top-10 finishes before first major.

Kenny Perry (Kentucky)

Age: 48

Caps: 1 (2004)

Record: P2 L2

World ranking: 17

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 12

Lost a play-off for 1996 US PGA at Valhalla and will have home state support again. Hardly used in 2004, but is enjoying best season of his career. Chose not to play the Open at Birkdale.

Steve Stricker (Wisconsin)

Age: 41

Debut

World ranking: 8

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 4

Wild card

Needed wild card despite being third highest world-ranked American. Played in Presidents Cup in 1996 and won Dunhill Cup that year with Phil Mickelson and Mark O'Meara. World Match Play champion in 2001.

Boo Weekley (Florida)

Age: 35

Debut

World ranking: 35

Majors: 0

Tour wins: 2

Real name Thomas, but nickname comes from Yogi Bear's sidekick Boo Boo. Ten years after turning professional he finally established himself on the US Tour last season. Lost World Cup play-off to Colin Montgomerie and Marc Warren.

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