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NatPost: Azinger Revives FedEx Cup

My latest National Post column is online here.

Like last week’s column, space considerations resulted in a number of cuts to the column. So here is the unedited version:

Robert Thompson

On Golf

Though Paul Azinger won’t be playing this week when the FedEx Cup kicks off with The Barclays in New Jersey, it is the aging PGA Tour veteran who has added some much-needed spice to the PGA Tour’s vaunted playoff series.

That’s because last year Azinger, tired of watching the U.S. squad get thumped by a so-called underdog European group in the Ryder Cup, decided the process of team selection needed an overhaul. Maybe it was more than just an overhaul – consider it an engine change.

Previously the U.S. team was announced the day after the conclusion of the PGA Championship. At that point the ten players were awarded spots of the squad by accruing Ryder Cup points, while the team captain – most recently Tom Lehman for the 2006 outing – had two selections. But having been soundly beaten in the contest for Samuel Ryder’s trophy in three consecutive outings, Azinger felt the need for a new approach.

He lobbied the PGA of America, which runs the American facet of the event, and convinced it to let him double the captain’s picks and not have to announce them until the mid-way point of the four tournament FedEx Cup. That means two tournaments from now, after the conclusion of the Deutsche Bank Championship, Azinger will decide who has played their way onto the team.

PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem must be thrilled by Azinger’s decision, and its resulting affect on the FedEx Cup. Though Finchem has tried to fix his $40-million playoff after numerous stumbles in its first year, there was no excitement or anticipation about it heading into the first event this week in New Jersey. Last year Tiger Woods threw cold water on the first tournament of the FedEx by staying home to relax. He’s relaxing again this year after having surgery on his left knee. He won’t reemerge until next year, and his injury keeps him out of all of Finchem’s US$38-million four tournament playoff.

Leave it to the Ryder Cup – an event largely devoid of drama in recent years – to pick up the slack. Azinger’s starting eight players – who made the team following the PGA Championship two weeks ago – hardly look like world beaters, let alone the type who can derail the European juggernaut. Sure there are some stars – like Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk – already on the team. But lacking Woods’ presence, the U.S. team has never appeared so lackluster in last decade.

And for every emerging star, like 22-year old Anthony Kim, there’s a Kenny Perry, an aging money-maker whose competitive drive led him to skip the British Open and who has a sterling Ryder Cup record of two losses in his only previous start. The U.S. team isn’t just a mixed bag of players. With the exception of Mickelson, Furyk and Kim, it is a mixed big of marginal players, and one that doesn’t look primed to tackle Sergio Garcia and multiple major winner Padraig Harrington. Unable to compete that is unless Azinger stays true to his word.

The U.S. captain says he’s seeking hot playing golfers to fill in the final spots. Some have suggested Azinger should stick with the tried and tested – and pick a slumping veteran like Steve Stricker simply because he would be next in line for the team. But there appears to be something of a contrarian in Azinger, something that suggests he will go against the grain. And that means Stricker should be watching the event on television and not from the course in Kentucky.

It could well be the hot players emerge during the first two tournaments of the FedEx Cup. Could bomber J.B. Holmes rebound from a terrible final round of the PGA Championship to impress Azinger enough to take a chance on his massive drives and ability to intimidate opponents? Or could Rocco Mediate complete his improbable comeback from his back injury to play his way on to the team with a strong finish this week? How about young gun Chez Reavie taking another tournament after his win at the Canadian Open? That might be enough to sway Azinger.

Storylines, storylines, and more potential storylines.

Azinger has until Sept. 2 to make his choices public. By doing so in a year when golf’s biggest player is on the sidelines, he’s created drama in a playoff system where, in only its second year, none would otherwise exist.

National Post

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Robert Thompson

A bestselling author and award-winning columnist, Robert Thompson has been writing about business and sports, and particularly golf, for almost two decades. His reporting and commentary on golf has appeared in Golf Magazine, the Globe and Mail, T&L Golf and many other media outlets. Currently Robert is a columnist with Global Golf Post, golf analyst for Global News and Shaw Communications, and Senior Writer to ScoreGolf. The Going for the Green blog was launched in 2004.

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