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Column: The 4-letter word from Azinger that stirs Ryder Cup

March 3, 2020 GMT
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FILE - This Aug. 13, 2009 file photo shows Paul Azinger during the first round of the 91st PGA Championship at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Azinger says he turned down a chance to replace Ken Venturi at CBS after he won the Sony Open 20 years ago.(AP Photo/Charles Neibergall, File)
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FILE - This Aug. 13, 2009 file photo shows Paul Azinger during the first round of the 91st PGA Championship at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn. Azinger says he turned down a chance to replace Ken Venturi at CBS after he won the Sony Open 20 years ago.(AP Photo/Charles Neibergall, File)

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) — The Ryder Cup is more than six months away, and all it took was a four-letter word from Paul Azinger to get Europe worked up over defending more than just the gold trophy.

Azinger regrets using the word, one he says he slips into speech all the time.

T-H-A-T.

The scene was Sunday at the Honda Classic, where Azinger was working as the lead analyst for NBC Sports. The context was Tommy Fleetwood of England, now the No. 10 player in the world, trying to win for the first time on the PGA Tour.

Fleetwood did not achieve this ranking by accident.

He has five European Tour victories, twice against strong fields in Abu Dhabi, another in the French Open in 2017 at Le Golf National, where a year later he would go 4-1 in the Ryder Cup. He was runner-up to Brooks Koepka at Shinnecock Hills and to Shane Lowry at Royal Portrush.

His best finish at a regular PGA Tour event was a tie for third last year at Bay Hill.

“A lot of pressure here,” Azinger said on the broadcast. “You’re trying to prove to everybody that you’ve got what it takes. These guys know, you can win all you want on that European Tour or in the international game and all that, but you have to win on the PGA Tour.”

That European Tour.

“Bad grammar,” Azinger said Monday. “If I had said ‘the’ European Tour, the whole thing would have been different.”

Maybe.

Either way, that was his lone regret.

“I’ve said this a million times, and it’s how I changed the selection process for the Ryder Cup,” said Azinger, the winning captain in 2008. “The only thing pros choke for are cash and prestige. And the PGA Tour has the most of both.”

Lee Westwood was among those offended, saying on Twitter the comment was condescending to the tour he plays and “disrespects the tournaments you’ve won around the world.”

Thomas Bjorn, the winning Ryder Cup captain in France, said in a tweet that Azinger easily could have said Fleetwood had won around the world, is a world-class player and “now the time has come for him to prove that on the strongest tour in the world.”

“He was at best ignorant, at worst arrogant in delivering that,” Bjorn added. “Bring on September!”

The Ryder Cup is Sept. 25-27.

Criticism is found easily by anyone on a mission to find mistakes, and this squabble will pass until the next time Fleetwood or any other European Tour member is in the hunt for his first PGA Tour title.

But it won’t be forgotten in September.

It’s not as though Europe needs any motivation in the Ryder Cup, having won eight of the last 11. But if the Europeans are looking for chips to put on their shoulders, Azinger provided one.

It was reminiscent of 2006, when the Europeans were going for a third straight Ryder Cup and had a superior team. No matter. Privately, they were seething over comments from second-tier American players who promoted the message that the Nationwide Tour was the second-best tour in golf.

Now that was offensive.

Europe demolished the Americans at The K Club in Ireland, and during the winner’s news conference, Sergio Garcia said the result hopefully would keep Europeans from being asked if the Nationwide Tour was the second-best tour in the world.

“Behind Europe,” Luke Donald added.

Ouch.

That’s a big reason why Europe leans so heavily on the Ryder Cup outcome. It’s the one time Europe can prove it stands on equal footing. But that’s a fallacy.

Europe has great players, 10 of whom have combined to win 14 majors in the last decade. All of those major champions play on the PGA Tour on a regular basis, and some of them live in America.

Westwood isn’t on that list, but with 41 wins around the world across four decades, his record speaks for itself. Azinger was bothered only by the notion that Westwood took his comments as being disrespectful of his career.

“I would never do that,” Azinger said.

Yes, Europe has great players. But the European Tour is nowhere close to the PGA Tour in depth of fields, amount of ranking points, television exposure and most of all, money. The total purse at the Qatar Masters this week is $1.75 million. The winner of the Arnold Palmer Invitational gets $1,674,000.

That explains why 43 of the top 50 in the world play a full PGA Tour schedule. Most of the other seven would join if they had the chance. To beat the best in golf means coming to America — not every week, but most weeks.

There is prestige. There is cash. The PGA Tour has the most of both.

Fleetwood will get another chance. Or maybe the opportunity this week will fall to Rafa Cabrera Bello, Tyrrell Hatton or Matt Wallace. And maybe Azinger will not sound as dismissive about the tour where they have won tournaments.

If not soon, the Europeans will have a say in September.

There is no cash to be won at the Ryder Cup, only prestige. For Europe, the latter will go a long way.