- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky.

The United States is on the doorstep of ending its Ryder Cup drought.

Claiming its first lead heading into singles play at a Ryder Cup since 1995, the U.S. squad stemmed a European morning rally with a split in the afternoon fourballs to take a 9-7 lead into Sunday’s finale at Valhalla Golf Club.

“We took some blows today,” U.S. captain Paul Azinger said. “Europe played great today, but we only gave up one point [from the lead]. We feel pretty good about that.”

Azinger front-loaded his singles order Sunday in the hopes of locking up the Cup before Europe turns to its anchor trio of Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Padraig Harrington.

A 9-7 lead is far from safe given recent singles results in the event. In 1995, for instance, the U.S. team blew the same margin by earning just a half-point in the five matches that reached Oak Hill’s 18th hole. In 1999, the United States rallied from a 10-6 deficit behind a front-loaded lineup. And in the last three Ryder Cups, all comfortable European victories, the foreigners have averaged a 7.8-4.2 edge in singles.

But even a tenuous lead represents a victory of sorts for the underdog home team. The United States might not win the 37th Ryder Cup on Sunday afternoon against the favored Europeans, but Azinger’s bunch has won back the dignity of American golf. The Europeans authored record-setting nine-point walkovers in the last two Ryder Cups, with a fractured U.S. team gifting them points at every turn. All Azinger’s bunch has given the Europeans in Louisville is a fight.

It’s ironic to think a U.S. team without Tiger Woods might be the toughest in recent Ryder Cups. But after two stressful days at Valhalla, that seems to be the case.

Said Azinger: “Look, we came in here as underdogs, and we’re probably still underdogs. … I mean, the best player in the world is sitting at home watching, texting me and anyone else he can get a hold of. But these guys are gamers. We all know there’s a long way to go, but I’m real proud of them.”

Personifying that new U.S. toughness is a class of rookies that has largely carried the team.

Hunter Mahan, a 26-year-old rookie, owns the team’s best record (2-0-2). And he deserves at least partial credit for sparking teammate Justin Leonard. In spite of his Brookline fame, Leonard had never recorded a Ryder Cup victory when he arrived in Louisville. But in three matches this week with Mahan, the 36-year-old posted a 2-0-1 record, draining a career’s worth of clutch putts.

Budding 23-year-old star Anthony Kim (1-1-1) has helped to revitalize the often indifferent Phil Mickelson with his energy, prompting Lefty to turn his recent Ryder Cup futility (1-7-1 in the last two events) to sudden utility at Valhalla (1-1-2).

Veteran Steve Stricker, playing in his first Ryder Cup at age 41, holed Saturday’s biggest putt for the U.S. squad. He clinched a crucial half-point with an unlikely up-and-down from the high fescue right of the 18th green.

“You know, we weren’t supposed to win that match going against Sergio [Garcia] and Paul [Casey],” said Stricker, who carried Ben Curtis to a surprising halve in the afternoon’s second match. “But we played with a lot of heart out there. We held on and did ourselves good.”

And then there’s Boo Weekley. While putting together an unbeaten 1-0-1 record at Westwood’s expense, the 35-year-old Florida native has charmed the local galleries with both his dazzling iron-play and undeniable country charisma. In Saturday’s opening fourball match, Holmes carried Kentucky native J.B. Holmes to a 2 and 1 victory over the European duo of Westwood and Soren Hansen.

The victory halted the momentum Europe gained with its 2 1/2-1 1/2 victory in the morning foursomes session and ended Westwood’s streak of 12 consecutive Ryder Cup matches without a loss. Weekley hit no less than six incomparable iron shots, including an approach from a fairway bunker on No. 15 to within a foot of the hole.

Galleries at the course pushed Weekley along with chants of “Boo-S.-A. … Boo-S.-A.”

“I feel like I’ve been adopted,” Weekley said. “I feel like a dog that someone stuck a needle in and juiced up. I feel like a greyhound running around the track chasing one of those bunnies.”

Sunday’s greyhounds will wear European blue, but don’t expect them to catch the United States’ overachieving rabbits.

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