GLENEAGLES, Scotland – It is right around high noon on Saturday and Phil Mickelson is preparing for a duel.
Waiting at the Gleneagles clubhouse for U.S. captain Tom Watson, he simply needs confirmation of his assumption. He just needs Watson to assure him that he’ll once again be paired with Keegan Bradley in the afternoon session, just as he was twice the day before and three times when the Ryder Cup was last contested two years ago.
Why would he think any differently? This is the 10th straight appearance in the biennial event for Mickelson and never once has he been benched for an entire day. He has already been left out of the morning session, though, an idea which Watson believed was the right call during dinner the night before.
“I sat at the table with him,” the captain would later explain. “He was exhausted.”
Exhausted because he’d competed in two matches with Bradley during the day, posting a 1-1 record while playing a total of 34 holes. At 44, Mickelson is no longer a lock to play all five sessions. In fact, two years ago, after earning three wins with his younger partner, he requested to sit out the Saturday afternoon matches.
He was always going to sit out a Saturday session this time, too, especially after playing twice on Friday. In retrospect, Watson admits now, perhaps that was a mistake. Perhaps he should have given him Friday afternoon off.
Now, though, Mickelson is rested and ready to go. He is getting prepared to compete in the foursomes session – his preferred format, even if it doesn’t necessarily suit his skillset.
When the captain arrives, he gathers Mickelson with Bradley and fellow team member Webb Simpson. Instead of confirming their inclusion in the matches, though, he breaks the news to them.
They won’t be playing today.
“I expected exactly what Phil said to me,” Watson later recalled.
Unhappy with the decision, maybe even growing irate, he lobbies for the captain to change his mind.
"I've got a good record in the alternate-shot,” Mickelson tells him. “We can get it done, captain. We want the chance."
Watson doesn’t budge.
It takes a certain kind of captain to take such a stand against a five-time major champion and fellow Hall-of-Fame member, but Watson is exactly that kind of captain. He listens to Mickelson’s plea, hears him out. Then he answers once again.
With that, Watson hops back into his cart to watch the four matches in the morning session. Mickelson isn’t done, though.
This time he sends a text message to the captain.
“Give us a chance,” it reads.
Watson doesn’t, though. He sticks to his plan.
When he texts Mickelson back, he tells him the same answer.
For the remainder of the afternoon, Mickelson shuttled between the four team matches, wearing oversized gloves and alternatingly playing the roles of cheerleader and motivational speaker.
It’s a different role than he’s been so accustomed to having over the years. It must be equal parts debilitating and embarrassing, being told to watch from the sidelines while other less accomplished players compete for his country.
It must be a helpless feeling, too. Mickelson could only watch as Zach Johnson and Matt Kuchar lose their match, then Jim Furyk and Hunter Mahan, then Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler, until finally Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed surrender a lead on the final hole to only earn a disappointing half point.
Later, Watson is forced to explain the decision to keep Mickelson – and Bradley – from playing the entire day.
“I felt that we had the four best teams possible in the afternoon for alternate shot,” he says. “We can talk about decisions on teams all you want. The players that perform are the people that you have to talk about.”
He was then asked about it again, about the reaction from his heralded tandem to being left out.
“They were disappointed. I said, ‘I'm trying to make the best decisions possible in the afternoon with the lineup that's going to be the best for our team to win points.’ They were disappointed. They wanted to play. I like that in a player. I like the push-back that I got from them.”
Yes, Watson likes the attitude, he likes players who want the pressure on their shoulders. In this instance, though, he just didn’t like them enough to insert them into the lineup.
He’s then asked one more time about the move. He’s questioned as to whether he regrets it. To this, the captain only offers up a simple response that had become a theme throughout the day.