LOUISVILLE, Kentucky: Loud chants of "USA USA" reverberated around the ninth green at Valhalla Golf Club on Wednesday, early signs of the 13th man United States captain Paul Azinger is banking on to influence this week's Ryder Cup.
The Americans are under intense pressure to reverse a run of three successive defeats by Europe, the last two by thumping margins, and Azinger has targeted the Kentucky crowd to lift his 12-man team.
Four years ago at Oakland Hills, the US was outsmarted by Bernhard Langer's Europeans who shrewdly won over the home fans with a charm offensive in the build-up to the three days of competition.
Meticulous Langer told his players at the start of the week to make every effort to sign autographs and interact with the galleries. The ploy succeeded and Europe went on to crush its hosts by a record-equalling margin of 18-1/2 points to 9-1/2.
The highly competitive Azinger, a veteran of four Ryder Cups as player, is eager for that advantage to be reversed at Valhalla if at all possible. So far, his efforts are succeeding.
He has requested his players and caddies to engage the fans at every opportunity this week by signing autographs, posing for photographs and handing out US Ryder Cup lapel pins.
Around 40,000 fans have attended each of the first two practice days in sun-drenched conditions. Although they have given the European team a warm reception, their biggest roars have been reserved for the Americans.
By the time Kentucky natives Kenny Perry and J.B. Holmes reached the ninth green on Wednesday in the company of Jim Furyk and Boo Weekley, the spectators were ready to raise the decibel level.
Chants of "USA USA" built to a crescendo after the American quartet had putted out and slowly made their way up the incline towards the clubhouse, signing banners and Ryder Cup programs and tossing lapel pins into the crowd like confetti.
"It's awesome," Cup rookie Weekley said. "This whole crowd thing could be a turning point for us.
"I've never ever signed so many autographs. I must have signed at least a hundred by the ninth green."
Furyk, making his sixth Cup appearance this week, has vivid memories of Europe's cunning ploy with the fans at Oakland Hills and believes Louisville will be very different.
"That certainly didn't do us any favors at all in Detroit," he said of the 2004 Ryder Cup. "I loved the fans in Detroit and I love the fans here.
"Louisville fans don't get a lot of golf here but, when they do, they step it up a notch. It's important for us to play well to give the fans something to cheer about."
Azinger, who has appeared to be in more relaxed mood than his opposite number Nick Faldo so far this week, believes the crowd has fully embraced the American team.
"We are loving our gallery," he said. "I want to treat them like they're going to be our 13th man. They're screaming for more pins and I don't think we have enough. We only have 10,000.
"We really want to embrace this crowd. We don't want what happened in '04 to happen again. The Europeans are already requesting sharpies on the tees and stuff like that, so I know what they're trying to do.
"It's like The K Club," he added, referring to the fans in Ireland two years when Europe again hammered the Americans by a nine-point margin.
"The crowd was so energized there. It was hard to watch as an American player but it was the way it should be. I think what you're going to see here is the same kind of energy, maybe even a greater energy."
Although the Europeans have also made every effort to connect with the Valhalla fans, Azinger and his players seem to have established an early edge ahead of Friday's opening foursomes matches.
Source: China Daily/Agencies