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To have a shot at Ryder Cup, U.S. needs the ‘us’

The Ryder Cup-winning Team USA 2008: (top row from left) Jim Furyk Kenny Perry Phil MickelscaptaPaul Azinger Stewart Cink Chad

The Ryder Cup-winning Team USA of 2008: (top row, from left) Jim Furyk, Kenny Perry, Phil Mickelson, captain Paul Azinger, Stewart Cink, Chad Campbell, Steve Stricker; (bottom, from left) Boo Weekley, Ben Curtis, Anthony Kim, Hunter Mahan, J.B.Holmes and

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At a glance

When: Sept. 25-30.

Format: Match play between U.S. and European teams contested over three days and 28 matches.

Where: Medinah Country Club in Medinah.

Tickets: Sold out.

Captains: Davis Love III (U.S.), Jose Maria Olazabal (Europe).

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Updated: September 21, 2012 5:55PM

What’s the key for Team USA when it takes on the Europeans for the Ryder Cup at Medinah on Sept. 28-30?

Everything flows from team unity, said Paul Azinger, captain of the 2008 U.S. team, the only one to win a Ryder Cup since 1999.

‘‘The Americans have to become a team in four days,’’ Azinger told the Sun-Times. ‘‘The Europeans have been a team their entire lives.’’

Even though the U.S. team is from one nation, Europe’s conglomeration of different nationalities sets it up for the smaller bonding groups that are critical, Azinger said, explaining the secret to his success as captain in 2008.

‘‘The Irishmen, they’re representing Ireland,’’ said Azinger, who’s now an ESPN analyst. ‘‘They’re engaged and invested in each other. We’re not the Floridians and the Texans. We’re Americans. They already have small groups in place. The Irish will play together. The English. The Spaniards.’’

That unity has helped the Euros win six of the last eight Ryder Cups, including four of the last five.

‘‘We often show up with the better players at this match,’’ Azinger said. ‘‘We’re rarely the better team.’’

While pondering that challenge before the 2008 matches, Azinger ran across a documentary on TV in which a Navy SEALs officer explained that small groups were the key to their elite training. Inspired, Azinger turned his 12-man team into groups of four.

That point of emphasis translated into a 161/2 to 111/2 American victory at Valhalla.

‘‘Twelve guys cannot bond in four days,’’ he said. ‘‘But small groups of four can get engaged and invested in each other, if they buy into it, [saying], ‘How can I make the other guys in my group better?’ ’’

The Europeans do it naturally. This year’s U.S. captain, Davis Love III, often speaks about team-building in the same light that Azinger put it.

‘‘Davis is doing his own thing,’’ Azinger said. ‘‘He’s extremely thorough, very bright and has surrounded himself with good people. My advice to him was to figure out the best way possible to get the players invested in each other.’’

As the host captain, Love has ordered up a Medinah that takes advantage of his long-hitting team, with manageable rough to go with some enticing risk-reward opportunities.

‘‘Davis has it set up so that it’s going to be a birdie-fest,’’ Azinger said. ‘‘It’s going to be high energy. I anticipate an epic Ryder Cup.’’

That’s because both teams are brimming with talent. Love will have a revived Tiger Woods, three second-time Ryder Cup participants — Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar and Bubba Watson — with singular skills and four rookies, notably Keegan Bradley and Jason Dufner, who have proven toughness.

That said, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal, who paired famously with the late Seve Ballesteros in Ryder Cup play, is bringing a formidable team to Medinah. The hot hand, of course, is Rory McIlroy, who has added two September wins to his PGA Championship at Kiawah in early August. The blind-pairing rules of the Ryder Cup make matchups a crap shoot, but McIlroy already has said he’d relish the opportunity to go head-to-head with Woods.

‘‘I don’t dislike Tiger in anything, but right now, I like Rory in everything,’’ Azinger said. ‘‘But that can work both ways. Rory may go in with an everything-to-gain-and-nothing-to-lose attitude. Sometimes that’s not good. I’d rather have somebody saying, ‘I’ve got everything to lose if I don’t play well.’ ’’

Given the enormous focus on the Ryder Cup, reputations will be enhanced or tarnished at Medinah.

‘‘I just think it’s really cool that Europe is marching in here with a juggernaut and the U.S. is matching up with them,’’ Azinger said. ‘‘The Ryder Cup has turned into a fierce competition, and there’s [going to be] blood here.’’

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