LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- The old guy with the familiar face and unforgettable fists sat quietly in an electric golf cart, taking pictures with the players on the two Ryder Cup rosters.
The Louisville legend himself, Muhammad Ali, made a trek to Valhalla Golf Club on Thursday and served as a living metaphor for what is sure to follow on the tee boxes and fairways, when the teams start throwing haymakers as the 37th Ryder Cup matches begin with alternate-shot format Friday morning.
If you thought the pressure-packed opening moments of the matches create a lump in the throats of players, you should have seen European captain Nick Faldo's reaction to spending a few moments with The Greatest during the team practice session.
"Incredible moment," Faldo said, his eyes visibly tearing up and reaching for a drink to wash down the golf ball-sized frog in his throat. "As you can see."
U.S. captain Paul Azinger had met Ali last year, in the former heavyweight champ's home, no less. He mentioned having watched Ali fight Ken Norton three decades ago, a brawl in which Ali's jaw was broken, yet he soldiered on. The eyes of Ali, 66, who has been rendered nearly silent by his long battle with Parkinson's Disease, lit up.
"I told him that was an inspiration for me, to never quit, no matter what I was doing," Azinger said.
It was a stirring episode for both teams as the Ryder wrasslin' match will begin with some heavy firepower on Friday at 8:05 a.m., when Azinger sent Phil Mickelson and Ryder rookie Anthony Kim off in the first group against two-time 2008 major championship winner Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson.
Azinger said he considered starting with homegrown Kentuckians J.B. Holmes and Kenny Perry, but indicated that Holmes might not be best suited to alternate-shot play. Instead, Perry will play in the fourth and final alternate-shot duel with veteran Jim Furyk, and they will take on the biggest monsters of the Euro team, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood.
Garcia and Westwood, the new leaders of the European squad, are 4-1-1 together in team play. But all of Kentucky will rooting on Perry, 48, an increasingly popular native who still lives in the state.
"The crowd will definitely pick us up tomorrow," Perry said. "It will definitely be home-field advantage for us."
If they win, it could potentially send an important message to Europe's strongest pairing. Garcia is 8-0-0 in alternate-shot team play.
"I like the fact that Kenny Perry gets to play Sergio with an everything-to-gain, nothing-to-lose mindset," Azinger said.
Likewise, Faldo said he had no problem sending the Garcia-Westwood tandem out last, rather than first, given that Harrington and Karlsson have both won in the past few weeks. In fact, the 6-foot-5 Swede won the European Tour event last Sunday in Germany and the Americans haven't won since mid-July. Still, sending Garcia's group off first to hopefully get the momentum building was considered, Faldo said.