Phil Mickelson’s Ryder Cup was a total mouth-shutter. Rarely has an all-time great put himself so squarely under pressure, and delivered such a titanic long-ball performance. Think of it: a 17-11 victory for the United States led by his ground-shaking 10 birdies in a single round, after all of the squabbling and blaming, and the heaping of expectations. It was the golf equivalent of a called shot, and the ball is still going.
Pause for a moment, and consider how the 46-year-old Mickelson’s public image would have withered if he and the U.S. had lost again at Hazeltine. The degree to which Mickelson loaded responsibility on to his own back was part of the awe of the thing. The United States had lost six of the last seven Ryder Cups to Europe. Sick of being the front man for embarrassing defeats, two years ago Mickelson had pointed fingers and demanded changes, and he got what he wanted: control of the team.
Everyone put a bull’s-eye on him for it. “If I had a losing record in the Ryder Cup, I’d keep my mouth shut,” the legendary Lee Trevino said. Former European team captain Paul McGinley suggested that Mickelson had put the Americans “under massive pressure,” and cornered himself. “Playing with expectation on your shoulders is a difficult position to be in – because you’ve got nowhere to go from there,” McGinley said.
Now Mickelson’s critics are the ones who can keep their mouths shut. Normally he is a vanilla corporate pitchman who studiously avoids controversy, so that tells you how strongly he felt about it. Earlier this week he explained why, suggesting he was tired of taking the hit for botched decisions by former captains who failed to build good teams. Hal Sutton, who captained the U.S. to an abysmal loss in 2004, fired back harshly, telling Golf Digest magazine that Mickelson was the real problem. “He let his whole team down,” Sutton said. Golf channel analyst Brandel Chamblee jumped in, saying Mickelson had “thrown every single captain he’s had for the last 20 years under the bus.”
But as it turns out, Mickelson was exactly right about all of it. Everything.
Mainly, he was right about the problems with America’s Ryder Cup selection system, which no one else seemed willing to identify. As Jim Furyk said, “If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this [expletive] a long time ago.”
The main thing wrong with the American approach was that it was based in the arrogant assumption that a dozen players with weak relationships to each other would play well as a team simply because they were American, for a captain they didn’t necessarily know or particularly like. Players had no input; captains were named by the PGA of America’s volunteer president, vice president and secretary. The captain in turn felt zero obligation to consult or explain himself, as was the case two years ago with 65-year-old Watson. After the loss, asked what the Americans needed to do different, Watson said, “Play better.”
A rankled Mickelson begged to differ. He pointed out that the Europeans had won eight of the past 10 Ryder Cups with collective decision-making, and a coherent effort at team-building and continuity, with players groomed in team competitions, and captains developed over periods of years by serving as vice captains before they assumed leadership. Mickelson pointed out the startling fact that over 20 years, only one USA captain had ever served as a vice captain.
The suggestion that the Americans simply needed to “play better” was still rankling Mickelson this week. They didn’t need to play better; they needed to plan better, he insisted.As an example, he cited the story of how Sutton had summarily paired him with Tiger Woods in 2004, with disastrous results. Not only were Mickelson and Woods distant, but they played dramatically different brands of golf with different balls.
“We were told two days before that we were playing together,” Mickelson said. “And that gave us no time to work together and prepare.”
Mickelson and Woods lost both their matches and the Europeans trounced the Americans by 181/2 points to 91/2.
“That put us in a position to fail, and we failed monumentally,” Mickelson said. “But to say: ‘Well, you just need to play better,’ that is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare. I’ve had to be accountable for that decision 12 years ago. . . . I’ve had to be accountable for that decision of which I was not part of. That’s a very frustrating thing. I don’t know if you can imagine how frustrating it would be to care so much about something like I do about the Ryder Cup and be accountable for many of the decisions that have taken place when you’re not a part of those decisions.”
This time Mickelson had all the input he wanted, starting with a place on a Ryder Cup task force heavily stocked with eight players and former player-captains. They chose an experienced captain all agreed on in Davis Love III. But everyone acknowledged that Mickelson was “the power behind the throne,” as NBC’s Johnny Miller put it.
That meant Mickelson would be held all the more responsible if the U.S. collapsed again. Even Mickelson himself suggested that maybe he had been a “dumbass” to open his mouth. With another loss, Mickelson would have been an epic loser, and a selfish, petulant one at that, who blamed others for his shortcomings.
His teammates were fully cognizant of the weight.
“He knew how much pressure was on him, not just the pressure he put on himself but from people on the outside looking in,” Rickie Fowler said.
At least one teammate suggested that Mickelson’s self-made predicament may have motivated the U.S.
“He realized how this turned out would reflect on him 100-percent,” Brandt Snedeker said. “To have shoulders that big and realize that he’s going to have to shoulder it one way or another, it shows you the kind of person he is and the player he is. . . . We all felt invested in that.”
The victory totally remakes Mickelson’s reputation now. He’s the savior and the sage instead of the selfish shirker. Instead of citing his losing record, the more relevant number is that he has played more matches than any other American (45) and contributed more points (22) points than anyone but Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper. But more importantly, he laid the groundwork for future victories – and for his own well-earned captaincy someday. “This is the foundation week for us,” he said.
Fort Worth native Sally Jenkins is a sports columnist for The Washington Post. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org