Ryder Cup showcases new players

ATLANTA (AP) - September 24, 2008

One reason the Europeans play with so much passion and purpose is because they represent their tour, not just their continent. For years, they were coach to the PGA Tour's business class. Padraig Harrington referred to the European tour as "country cousins," and the Ryder Cup was a stage for its players to prove themselves as equals.

This time, however, it was the PGA Tour desperate for a victory.

American golf has been flat over the last three months, dating to a shocking announcement that Tiger Woods would miss the rest of the year due to reconstructive knee surgery.

Television ratings have plunged. Grandstands look half-empty (although the tour would say they are half-full).

This would have been a good time for Phil Mickelson or Sergio Garcia to fill the void, but neither has won a tournament since Woods went on injured reserve. And even if they had, they would not have received as much credit. Someone would have mentioned an asterisk.

But it sure was hard to ignore Anthony Kim in the Ryder Cup.

U.S. captain Paul Azinger sent out the 23-year-old Kim in the first singles match Sunday against Garcia with words that stuck with Kim throughout his 5-and-4 victory.

"You have a lot of game, so just go out there and let the whole world see it."

What everyone saw was one of the most explosive talents in golf. Kim beat a strong field at the Wachovia Championship by five shots. Two months later at storied Congressional, he won the AT&T National by closing with a 65 to become the first American under 25 since Woods to win at least two PGA Tour events in the same year.

But was anyone really watching?

Will they remember Kim's two victories this year, or how he handed Garcia his worst loss ever in a Ryder Cup? Kim was so fired up that he didn't even realize after an 8-foot par putt on the 14th hole that the match was over.

It wasn't just Kim.

Hunter Mahan received fleeting fame last summer when he won for the first time and busted out a few scores in the low 60s. If anyone outside golf recognized his name, he was the guy who criticized the Ryder Cup largesse without having played in one.

They might look at him differently now.

Mahan tied a record for most points by a U.S. captain's pick when he went 2-0-3, the only player at Valhalla to play all five matches without losing. It was his clutch tee shot and approach on the par-5 18th that secured a valuable halve in the final team match Saturday, and he secured another half-point when he holed a 60-foot putt across the 17th green Sunday.

Fans might now flock to Boo Weekley like they once did to John Daly.

No one knows what might come out of his mouth, whether it's tobacco juice or homespun talk about chasing bunnies around the dog track. He kept his teammates listening because no one was sure what he would say next.

Has anyone seen a golfer gallop off the tee using his driver as a toy horse?

"Couldn't stop laughing," Jim Furyk said.

By the way, Weekley also came up with one clutch shot after another, from his approach out of a fairway bunker to 2 feet to a pair of birdie putts from off the green.

J.B. Holmes used to show off his power only outside Phoenix, where he twice won the FBR Open. But no display was more memorable than his tee shots on the 16th and 17th, setting up easy birdies that allowed him to win the pivotal match Sunday.

The Ryder Cup gave them all a chance to shine. PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem was among those paying attention.

"I thought the Ryder Cup was a major impact on bringing some new stars to life for the future of the PGA Tour," Finchem said Tuesday. "When you just look at the way Mahan, and Kim in particular, J.B. Holmes and Boo Weekley played ... I think some of them were already reasonable stars, but they all took a major step up in terms of their notoriety with our fan base.

"And that's a good thing."

They are not Tiger Woods.

Kim might have the best chance to audition as Woods' next rival, but even he says he's not at that level right now.

"Nobody is going to knock Tiger off anywhere. That's a given," Kim said. "He's staying there until somebody starts giving him more of a challenge on a week-to-week basis, and that's my goal."

Worse than Woods missing the last half of the year is the reminder that he is closer to the end of his career. He is 32, coming off his third knee operation in six years, closing in on Jack Nicklaus' record 18 majors. Woods playing into his late 40s is about as likely as Nick Faldo conceding he made a mistake.

"While we miss Tiger - and everybody misses Tiger - it does give us this window of players being able to get more attention," Finchem said. "That certainly was evident at the Ryder Cup."

There are plenty of personalities on the PGA Tour. Golf managed to survive before Woods came along.

It took the Ryder Cup to bring some of them out.

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