2016-09-29 21:03:07
On Golf: Win or Lose, the U.S. Ryder Cup Team Belongs to Phil Mickelson

21:03, September 29 336 0

CHASKA, Minn. — The wind was gusting at more than 30 miles per hour when the United States team showed up at Hazeltine National Golf Club on Monday for its first practices of the Ryder Cup week. Some people might have seen the blustery conditions as symbolic of the difficulties the Americans face in trying to regain their footing in a competition whose outcome in recent years has tilted toward the Europeans.

Not Phil Mickelson. After assessing the conditions, he called an audible and recommended that his teammates replace on-course work with mental imagery.

“On a day like that,” Mickelson explained Wednesday, “why would you see bad when you can visualize good?”

In 10 previous Ryder Cup appearances, Mickelson has seen more bad than good. As a member of eight losing teams, Mickelson, depending on your view, is either the ideal person to identify all the mistakes that have been made or part of the problem.

Common convention holds that the American team member whose reputation rests on the outcome of the 41st Ryder Cup is the captain, Davis Love III, who is back after his 2012 squad squandered a 10-6 lead in singles play on the final day.

But with Mickelson’s fingerprints all over this year’s team, it could be argued that his legacy is the one on the line as the United States attempts to win for the first time since 2008 and for only the third time since 1995.

This week Mickelson helpfully pointed out the errors made in 2004 by the American captain Hal Sutton, who gave Mickelson and Tiger Woods two days’ notice that they were going to be foursome partners. Mickelson said that had not been nearly enough lead time to grow accustomed to hitting with Woods’s high-spin golf ball. What he neglected to mention is that he was using new clubs, too, after switching manufacturers a week before the competition. He later told Golf Channel that he had apologized to Sutton for his remarks and said he “never should have brought that up.”

Mickelson, 46, has a passive-aggressive streak that can be sharper than his short game. In 2014, he was the one who memorably pointed out the error of Tom Watson’s ways while his teammates were still numb from their third consecutive defeat to Europe. Mickelson sat on the dais in Scotland and earnestly eviscerated Watson, who was seated a few feet away. Each criticism was a stinging blow that Watson stoically absorbed.

Mickelson’s comments set off a chain of events that led to Watson’s authoritarian leadership model being replaced by a more decentralized system that is built around the pod model used in 2008 by the last victorious United States captain, Paul Azinger.

The team is divided into three groups of four golfers, with each unit led by a vice captain who acts as the bonding agent. The injured Woods, for example, is overseeing a pod of Dustin Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth. Mickelson and Woods, who has been sidelined more than a year with a back injury that required surgery, were part of an 11-person United States Ryder Cup task force that helped implement changes.

Mickelson rejected the notion that his leading role as an agitator had thrust him into the white-hot center of the spotlight.

“I don’t necessarily agree with that,” said Mickelson, who had earlier cautioned against becoming too fixated on Sunday’s final standings.

“You don’t want to get too tied up in the results,” he said, “but certainly what we’re looking at is, are we able to play our best golf? That’s the whole point.”

Mickelson is an outgoing older-brother type who plays by feel and feeds off emotion, with the clout that comes with five major titles and 51 professional victories, including 42 on the PGA Tour. He comes across as the kind of player captains would like to clone for team events.

And yet, strangely, he has seldom been at his best in the Ryder Cup. In his 1995 debut at Oak Hill Country Club outside Rochester, N.Y., he was a perfect 3-0-0 in a losing cause. In nine subsequent appearances, his combined record is 13-19-6. He has also competed in 11 Presidents Cups.

Rory McIlroy, a four-time European team member, described Mickelson’s role in this year’s event as “a vice captain player type.” Mickelson’s teammates spoke about how he had gone out of his way to imbue his teammates with confidence by listing their strengths and saying, “This is why we want you on this team.”

For the past several months, Mickelson has arranged practice rounds at PGA tournaments, which were intended to be Ryder Cup bonding exercises.

“Can’t put a price on that,” Brandt Snedeker said. “That’s leadership to me.”

In one of his daily news conferences this week, Love mentioned Mickelson by name 15 times, and that did not count his response to a direct question about Mickelson. Love said that he had been addressing the United States contingent on Tuesday night when he had noticed that Mickelson was leaning forward in his seat, eager to say something. So Love ceded the floor to him.

“Nobody has seen more team golf on our team than him,” said Love, who described Mickelson as “kind of the backbone of the team.”

Brandel Chamblee, a Golf Channel studio analyst, used different language to describe Mickelson’s Ryder Cup role.

“There is a sense that even though Davis is the captain, that Phil is running the show, which is, along with Tiger on the task force, a bit like letting the men who continually have sunk the boat rise to captain of the boat,” Chamblee wrote in an email.

In 2008, Chamblee added, Azinger was fortunate. Because an injured Woods was not on the team, Chamblee said, Azinger “only had one almost uncaptainable player to deal with.”

Success in the best-ball (four-ball) and alternate-shot (foursome) matches is a tough combination to crack, requiring an alchemy of skill, chemistry and luck that is hard to summon on demand. Mickelson said the pod system allowed for compatibility and trust to be built over an extended period of time.

Although the United States team was unveiled in three stages, Mickelson suggested that the players had known for a while whom they were going to be paired with, allowing them to learn one another’s personalities and peccadilloes and become invested in one another’s success. It is a more traditional courtship, as opposed to golf’s version of the American reality show “Married at First Sight.”

“I think there’s a lot to be said for having camaraderie and a support system, working together, having a game plan, building each other up, pulling each other from lows and helping each other reach new heights,” Mickelson said.

As a fortune hunter wed to an individual sport, he is surprised at the affinity he has developed over the years for the Ryder Cup.

“The relationships that you form the week of these team events, because you’re dealing with such emotional highs and lows and challenges and excitement, you create bonds that last a lifetime,” Mickelson said.

Those bonds can become frayed in a hurry. On Tuesday night, Sutton was in the American team room spreading good tidings. The next morning, Mickelson praised Sutton’s idea to pair him and Woods in the foursomes. Then, in the next breath, he criticized the move because of the late notice, describing it as “an example of, starting with captain, that put us in a position to fail and we failed monumentally.”

Why see bad when you can visualize good? No matter. Mickelson will captain the United States one day. His turn on the hot seat is coming. In the meantime, this week will make a nice warm-up.