- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 21, 2001

DULUTH, Ga. Perhaps Curtis Strange is stocking up for another Ryder Cup comeback.
Two years after Uncle Sam's squad managed the most miraculous rally in the history of the Ryder Cup to edge the Europeans at Brookline, the U.S. captain used his wild-card picks on Paul Azinger and Scott Verplank yesterday, adding two of the game's preeminent comeback players to his roster.
The 41-year-old Azinger, a player who like his late best friend Payne Stewart would rather swallow a handful of tees than lose to the Euros, provided the spiritual soul for U.S. teams in 1989, '91 and '93. At the time, Azinger was one of the world's most daunting players, a relentless competitor with 11 Tour victories and a major title to his credit (1993 PGA Championship).
But just a month after the season that saw Azinger take down Greg Norman at the PGA Championship and lead the U.S. to a 15-13 victory in its last trip to the Belfry (1993), he was diagnosed with lymphoma in his left shoulder. Azinger lost almost the entire 1994 season to the cancer and has not played in the Ryder Cup since. But yesterday's selection completed a comeback that began last year at the Sony Open, where he recorded his first post-cancer victory.
"Paul is a great leader and great motivator," said Strange, whose team will try to defend the Cup at the Belfry (Sutton Coldfield, England) Sept. 28-30. "He can play best ball or alternate shot, and he can play with anybody because of his personality."
Verplank, the first Ryder Cup rookie ever chosen by a captain, has a much more reserved demeanor. But like Azinger, the 37-year-old Oklahoman is known for his grit and perseverance.
After winning the 1985 Western Open as an amateur and the 1988 Buick Open, the diabetic Verplank endured several elbow surgeries and a slew of miserable seasons before earning the 1998 Comeback Player of the Year award and then ending his 12-year victory drought at last year's Reno-Tahoe Open.
"What I've been looking for is the two best players two best players means who has the biggest heart, the most game and some length in their game to be able to possibly dominate a course," said Strange. "Scott has a huge heart. When you look at where he's come from injuries, fighting diabetes everyday only he knows where that's taken him from. But every day he has to wake up being a fighter, and you want that."
Among the notables passed over by Strange were recent Ryder Cup staple Tom Lehman, steady Chris DiMarco and Justin Leonard, the stony Texan who dropped the Brookline Bomb.
Lehman, who was nudged out of the top 10 in the Ryder Cup standings by PGA Championship winner David Toms, has played poorly of late, missing the cut at the Atlanta Athletic Club. Plus, Lehman might not be in the best emotional shape for the rigors of a Ryder Cup just two months after his wife delivered what would have been the couple's fourth child stillborn.
Unlike Lehman, the 13th-ranked DiMarco has enjoyed a strong season. The 32-year-old known for his "Claw" putting grip was one of only nine players to make the cut in each of the season's Grand Slams. But DiMarco would have also been a Ryder Cup rookie. And unlike Verplank, he has no match-play credentials.
Verplank won the 1984 U.S. Amateur title and posted a 3-0-1 record at the 1985 Walker Cup.
Leonard, ranked 24th in the standings, simply didn't earn enough points with his spotty play over the last two seasons to justify a wild-card selection.
The European hopefuls have three events over the next two weeks to try and qualify automatically before European captain Sam Torrance names his choices.
That might be the only route now available for stalwart Euros like Jose Maria Olazabal (ranked 18th), Ian Woosnam (16th), Miguel Angel Jimenez (11th) and Nick Faldo (28th). Because most insiders believe that Torrance has already decided to use his picks on Sergio Garcia and Jesper Parnevik, who teamed to finish 3-0-1 at Brookline.


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