Texas Ranger moves in for the kill

PAUL AZINGER would have been forgiven for giving Hunter Mahan a wide berth when it came to selecting his four captain’s picks.

Instead the USA skipper has been lapping up praise for unearthing a young American with the guts for a fight.

A halved singles match with Paul Casey last night that should have given him a full point nevertheless made him the most successful captain’s choice in US Ryder Cup history and brought a close to a tumultuous summer for the man from Plano, Texas.

After spending the last three months trying to live down some throwaway comments in which he referred to the PGA Of America’s treatment of its players as “slaves” during Ryder Cup week, Mahan made his peace with both the team’s governing body and its captain.

A lot of contrition and some strong play, including a tie for 10th at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, the tournament at which news of his comments first broke, and a round of 62 at The Barclays, saw the 26-year-old Texan more than forgiven by Azinger. He was rewarded with one of those precious picks and oh how he repaid his captain.

On revealing his selections Azinger described Mahan as a young lion with no Ryder Cup experience but lots of heart and terrific ball striking, someone who would add a lot to his team.

Once at Valhalla, Mahan displayed evidence of all three, so much so that by the time it came to yesterday’s singles, he had already tied Raymond Floyd, one of Azinger’s assistant captains, as the most successful captain’s pick in American history with three points from his four matches.

Not bad for a rookie either. Floyd became the oldest player to compete in the Ryder Cup at the age of 51 years and 20 days old when he got the captain’s call from Tom Watson in 1993 at The Belfry.

That was his eighth time around, this was Mahan’s first.

Teamed first with Justin Leonard, Azinger put together the first American pairing to win both matches in the same day of Ryder Cup competition since Tiger Woods and Davis Love III captured two points on the second day in 2002 at The Belfry. Mahan and Leonard took care of Henrik Stenson and Paul Casey in the opening foursomes and then slayed the Spanish pairing of Sergio Garcia and Miguel Angel Jimenez in the fourball format. Azinger liked what he saw so much he sent them back out again on Saturday morning against Jimenez and Graeme McDowell.

That earned a half-point having been 2-down after seven holes and while the captain benched Leonard, he kept his young lion in the game, this time uniting him with Phil Mickelson against the Swedes Robert Karlsson and Henrik Stenson.

That proved to be the toughest battle yet as the Americans surrendered a 2-up lead to the superior putting of Karlsson only for Mahan to rescue his erratic senior partner just when it mattered most, on the 18th green. With Mickelson zig-zagging across the 18th fairway, and the match all square, Mahan took the direct route as Karlsson gave himself an eagle chance. The Swede missed his opportunity to win the match, leaving Mahan to putt to halve it.

The Texan delivered, just as he had done all weekend. While Anthony Kim, all USA belt buckles and bravado, stole the limelight among the American rookies as he whooped it up with the Louisville galleries, Mahan just got the job done.

“I’ve been very impressed with Hunter this week, his game and also his stomach,” former American Ryder Cupper Johnny Miller told his NBC Television audience.

Last night, as Nick Faldo appeared to bottom load his singles line-up, Azinger sent his 12 players out looking the top-load his running order with his most aggressive men. With Kim number one, the captain’s next go-to guy was Mahan and against Paul Casey, a player in sketchy form all weekend, he got tangled in a real dogfight.

At the 17th, with the match all square as Casey had tried to chip away at a slender 1-up and at times 2-up lead, Mahan took a firm grip with the longest drained putt of the weekend, a 50-footer that brought a tremendous outpouring of emotion on the green.

It needed a strong word from Azinger to remind his young lion that the roaring could wait. The adrenaline was coursing too strong through the Texan’s veins, though, and he took his emotions onto the 18th tee and promptly plonked his drive into the water. Casey was off the hook and he fought back to win the hole and halve the match as Mahan was left to rue his first rookie error of the week.

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