CHASKA, Minn. – Everything bubbles over at the Ryder Cup. Fans, freed from golf’s genteel and respectful expectations, scream for golf balls to “get out of the cup!” Players who normally show no more emotion than a wry smile and friendly tip of the cap suddenly strut and bow and sound their barbaric yawps. Yes, there are roars and cheers on every golf course at every big tournament, but at the Ryder Cup those roars laced with a bit of arsenic. It is golf on the edge.
And Friday Phil Mickelson was in a state of near-panic.
You wouldn’t think there would be anything left on a golf course that could shake Mickelson. He’s 46. This has been his life since he was a teenager. He has won the biggest tournaments in the world, and he has lost them. He has earned hundreds of millions of dollars on the golf course and off. He’s one of the 10 or 15 greatest players ever, and the reason is his cool, his ability in the most impossible spots to hit the most miraculous shots.
And he has played in 10 Ryder Cups before this one.
But this one is different. “Given the buildup over the last couple of years,” he said, “the criticism, the comments, what have you, the pressure was certainly as great or greater than I have ever felt.”
Yes, this one is different. There’s a giant hole in Phil Mickelson's magnificent career. The hole is not there because of tournaments he’s blown; all players, even the greatest, blow tournaments. The hole isn’t there because it took him so long to finally win his first major championship. Mickelson has now won five majors, three of them Masters, and then you throw in a couple of Tour Championships and a Players Championship and domination at Pebble Beach … it is a Hall of Fame career to say the least.
No, the hole is exacty as big as the Ryder Cup. This is his void. This is his emptiness. You start with Mickelson’s losing Ryder Cup record – he was 16-19-6 coming into Hazeltine. His teams have lost eight of the 10 Ryder Cups he had played in. There is something suffocating about that record. No, it is not fair to compare Mickelson’s record with that of Arnold Palmer (22-8-2) or Jack Nicklaus (17-8-3) because those guys played in a different Ryder Cup, before European players joined the fray.
But how about comparing him with contemporaries like Colin Montgomerie (20-9-7) or Bernhard Langer (21-15-6) or Justin Rose (9-3-2), who beat Mickelson a couple of times in singles matches. How about the ever-fluctuating Sergio Garcia (18-9-5) or Lee Westwood (20-15-6) or Jose Maria Olazabal (18-8-5).
These were Europe’s best in the time of Mickelson, and they repeatedly won, he repeatedly lost. It wasn’t just him, of course. The U.S. team’s biggest names repeatedly lost. Tiger Woods also has a losing Ryder Cup record in his career, and if anything, this is more shocking because Woods played golf better than anyone ever.
There is a difference though. Woods’ Ryder Cup record seems just a weird quirk in his overwhelming career. He does not run from it. His singles record is a sparkling 4-1-2 … he just hasn’t played well in the team competitions. Hey, Tiger’s a lone wolf.
But Mickelson wears his Ryder Cup record. It gnaws at him. It infuriates him. It leads him to do all sorts of questionable things. Two years ago, in the moments after another dreadful Ryder Cup team performance, Mickelson lashed out at one of golf’s legends, Tom Watson, for his work as captain. Whatever flaws Watson displayed as captain, it was staggeringly poor form.
But this is how tender that Ryder Cup wound is. Touch it, he howls. For the last two years, by various accounts, it was Mickelson driving the so-called task force that has led to this team. There is a whole lot of pressure on him for that.
And then this week, someone again got a bit too close to the Ryder Cup wound by asking him about the importance of the Ryder Cup captain. This time, his friendly fire hit 2004 captain Hal Sutton, who never saw it coming. Mickelson just started griping about Sutton’s decision to pair Mickelson and Woods together 12 years ago. The comments so upset Sutton, who had come to Minnesota to be a part of the Ryder Cup experience, that for a time he reportedly considered leaving. Mickelson apologized for the insensitivity of his remarks but never took them back – he obviously still thinks it was ridiculous to pair him with Tiger Woods.*
*Maybe that’s why Mickelson lost to Sergio Garcia 3-2 in the singles on the Sunday of that Ryder Cup, part of Europe’s 18 1/2 to 9 1/2 drubbing of America.
He can’t help it. His Ryder Cup failings so obviously eat away at him. They make him crazy. And then there’s one more thing: Mortality. This might be his last Ryder Cup. Let’s face it – it almost certainly will be his last one. He will be 48 when the next Ryder Cup will be played at Le Golf National in France. There are so many good young American players. This is it.
And so, yes, Mickelson couldn’t sleep leading into Friday’s match. He talked about feeling nerves he had never felt before. “I could have copped out and asked to sit,” he said of the morning foursome session. “That would have been a totally weak move. And I wanted to get out there. Put me out there. I enjoy that pressure.”
Well … “enjoy” might be a strong word. Mickelson’s game was sketchy to say the least. He pounded one drive out of bounds. He hit a right-handed shot that plunked a spectator. He looked unnerved. But he had a secret weapon: his partner, Rickie Fowler. Nobody on Tour is as chill as Fowler. When Mickelson hit his shot out of bounds, Fowler laughed. When Mickelson scuffled, Fowler kept saying, “It’s cool. We’ll get ‘em. One hole at a time.”
Fower is exactly the sort of guy you would want to have as a partner.
“He knows what to say and when to say it,” MIckelson said.
Mickelson and Fowler were down two with four holes to play against Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan. Then they won the 15th and 16th holes to square the match. On the par-3 17th, Fowler hit his tee shot close to the flag – a dagger shot. Sullivan, a rookie who looked absolutely petrified, splatted his ball into the water.
And on the 18th, Mickelson hit a wayward drive but left Fowler with enough to get the ball to the green. Mickelson cozied the ball up nicely to the hole and the U.S. won, 1 up.
“He got some of my best golf out there in the end,” Mickelson said, speaking of Fowler. “Some of the iron shots down the stretch, a lot of it was due to the things that he said to get me in the right frame of mind.”
The U.S. swept the morning foursomes, a dominating performance that suggested this Ryder Cup might just be a blowout. This U.S. team seems much better than the European one. Europe is a bit down with six rookies and without Ryder Cup lions like Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell.
But those guys are just tough at the Ryder Cup. Europe flashed some muscle in the afternoon, running away in three of the four matches. So the U.S. leads 5-3 which, let’s be honest, means nothing. It’s close. It’s tense. It could be a grueling and feverish next two days.
Is Mickelson ready for it? Well, he really has no choice. It’s the Ryder Cup, and it’s intense for everyone. But for Mickelson, it’s a chance for small redemption. He probably won’t sleep much.