- The Washington Times - Monday, October 1, 2007

MONTREAL — Paul Azinger now knows the captaincy mantra for next year’s Ryder Cup: Walk softly and carry a big schtick.

Jack Nicklaus proved once again this week that Uncle Sam’s men respond better to a light touch and occasional joke than to a commanding hand brandishing a whip. In the aftermath of the U.S. squad’s demolition of the favored Internationals at Royal Montreal (19½-14½), one of golf’s great enigmas can again be pondered:

How can a U.S. bunch with one victory in the last six Ryder Cups dominate the Presidents Cup (now 5-1-1) against an International roster routinely stronger on paper than its European counterpart?

Given that the nucleus of the U.S. team is virtually the same from year to year (Tiger, Phil, Furyk, David Toms and Stewart Cink), perhaps the simplest answer to a complicated question must involve the part of the team that changes the most: its captaincy.

Some would argue that the Presidents Cup’s smaller-stage feel is what reduces stress on an American team that clearly plays better when it snickers rather than when it scowls. Don’t buy that. With seven installments now in the books, the Presidents Cup now equals the Ryder Cup in virtually every category other than corporate greed.

Nope, Nicklaus is the man who deserves a major measure of credit for keeping the U.S. squad loose. Sure, Captain Jack probably doesn’t know what brand of ball Scott Verplank plays or Toms’ career foursomes record. Heck, he didn’t even know it was Vijay Singh’s turn to putt when he suggested that Mickelson and Woody Austin concede a 4-footer to the International pairing of Singh and Mike Weir in the Friday foursomes. With his broomstick putter, cross-handed grip and spotty history with the blade, Singh’s circle of trust doesn’t extend past 20 inches.

What Nicklaus does know is that all that technical stuff is overrated. Just ask Hal Sutton, who took a trunk of data with him to the 2004 Ryder Cup and then proceeded to author the pairing shank of the century (Tiger/Phil), a move that set the tone for the worst-ever U.S. loss on home soil.

What Nicklaus knows is that a captain can’t win a Ryder or Presidents Cup, but he can darn sure lose one.

What Nicklaus knows is that the trench-mentality approach of the last three super-stoic Ryder Cup captains (Sutton, Curtis Strange and Tom Lehman) has produced the first three-cup skein of American futility in the event.

What Nicklaus knows is that his job is to establish a playful, laid-back atmosphere in the team room and then stay out of his team’s way.

“These guys are big boys. They know what they’re doing,” said Nicklaus, now 2-1-1 as the Presidents Cup captain.

And they know who they’re doing it for. The one thing no other U.S. captain can replicate is Nicklaus’ ability to inspire without saying a word. When you’ve got 18 majors on your resume, everybody wants to play for you — and nobody wants to let you down.

What every future U.S. captain should copy is the Nicklaus pairing philosophy. Every U.S. player submitted a list of two to five guys he wished to partner, and Nicklaus constructed his pairings accordingly.

“I think the thing I’ve noticed between Ryder Cups and here is that Jack is very much like, ‘Guys, do what you want to do, have a great time. Tell me who you want to play with,’ ” U.S. team veteran Scott Verplank said. “Ryder Cup has been captains a little bit more coming up and saying, ‘You’re playing with him, and he’s playing with him.’ ”

On Saturday, Mickelson told Nicklaus and vice captain Jeff Sluman he wouldn’t mind a singles shot at Vijay “Phil Who?” Singh. Nicklaus complied Saturday night. And yesterday a happy, determined Lefty reintroduced himself to the fate-tempting Fijian via a 5-and-4 singles thrashing that featured no words and didn’t conclude with a handshake. It was as close as golf gets to fall’s real Sunday sport.

But mostly Nicklaus went out of his way to keep his charges chuckling and relaxed, knowing that the team’s primary Ryder Cup affliction always has been taking itself too seriously. He needled his guys good-naturedly from the first team meeting (where he zinged Charles Howell III) to yesterday’s final team interview. Even wife Barbara got into the act, giving Austin a snorkel mask to commemorate his unforgettable Friday afternoon swim and persuading Aquaman to don it for his walk up the 14th hole yesterday.

“We had so much fun with each other this week, it was unbelievable,” Mickelson (2-1-2) said after every member of the U.S. squad earned at least two points in the rout. “Ask anybody on this team, and they’ll tell you the same thing. We had a blast together off the course, and that showed up in the way we played.”

Azinger was undoubtedly watching and taking notes. And if he micromanages his Ryder Cuppers next year at Valhalla in Louisville, Ky., he’ll have no excuse and be given no quarter.

In the meantime, it’s nice to bask in the glow of a U.S. victory after a year of listening to the Euros crow and the Internationals bellow.

Said Cink, who clinched the Cup for the United States early in the singles’ session with his 6-and-4 waxing of Nick O’Hern: “We came into this week with a little score to settle in the international arena, and I think we proved to everyone that we can play again.”

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