Ever since his outburst two years ago in the post-Ryder Cup news conference at Gleneagles, Phil Mickelson has taken a lot of hits.
Some were deserved. Some were not.
But in the wake of the United States’ 17-11 thumping of Europe at Hazeltine, two things have to be said about Mickelson: He put himself on the firing line with his mouth and then he backed up everything he had said with his game.
“He’s our papa bear,” Zach Johnson said, months before the American victory. “He’s very protective of all of us.”
Johnson was trying to explain Mickelson’s angry take-down of 2014 captain Tom Watson in that now infamous news conference. Almost no one would argue that Mickelson’s timing was right or proper that evening in Scotland. He attacked one of golf’s legendary figures and, in doing so, he focused attention on himself – not the European team – which had played so superbly that weekend.
That said, even if Mickelson’s methods were heavy-handed, there was genius in his seeming madness. He wanted change – he’d wanted it for years – and he finally got it in the creation of the group formerly known as the task force, now only called a committee.
By any name, the new group did two important things: It allowed the players – six current players, two former Ryder Cup captains – to decide who should lead the U.S. effort at Hazeltine and, it looked at the European model and said, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.’
Mickelson, captain Davis Love III and everyone and anyone connected to the PGA of America, spent most of the week in Minnesota repeating the mantra, “The task force wasn’t just about this Ryder Cup.”
More than anything, that was a defense mechanism in case things went wrong again. But there’s also some truth to it: The U.S. now has a plan going forward and the players will forever have that voice they believed they lacked.
No voice has been louder than Mickelson’s – from Gleneagles in September 2014, to the first task force meeting that December, to the days leading up to last week’s matches. He was a little bit like a WWE wrestler who takes on everyone in the building: first it was Watson; then it was the PGA’s captain selection system; then the media who made fun of the task force; then Hal Sutton and, finally, one last salvo directed at Watson: “To say, ‘Well, you just need to play better,’ that is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare.’”
That final shot across Watson’s bow went almost unnoticed because it came at the end of Mickelson’s diatribe on Sutton, when he insisted that Sutton had set he and Tiger Woods up “to fail” in 2004 because he didn’t give them enough warning that they were going to play together and, thus, not enough time to practice with each other’s golf balls.
Mickelson never did explain why he and Woods also lost that week or lend any credence to the notion that when partners don’t speak to one another for 36 holes, it isn’t really a positive. If the victory this past weekend was because the players were so close and a family, then wouldn’t two guys barely speaking to one another likely contribute to a defeat?
This was a different U.S. team. There wasn’t one mention all week of the players bonding through ping-pong. That they were close and got along was a given. Even the once reticent Woods, in his background role as vice captain, seemed to enjoy himself. Bubba Watson asked to be added as a last-second vice captain and then reveled in the role.
Much of the credit for that should go to Love, who, in his own way, is the Arnold Palmer of his generation. He doesn’t have Palmer’s flair or swashbuckling style, but he is universally loved and respected. If you ask Love to talk about his proudest moments in golf, he will always bring up the 1996 Presidents Cup team meeting when U.S. captain Palmer was telling his players how important it was to connect with fans, with the media and with people in general.
“Davis,” he said, pointing a finger at Love, “gets it.”
When Love tried to tell that story on Golf Channel's “Morning Drive,” the day after Palmer died, he choked up and could barely get through it.
Mickelson though, has always been a controversial figure. He has been compared with Palmer, too, because he does have Palmer’s flair and style and because fans absolutely adore him. That wasn’t always the case in the locker room when he was younger and hasn’t always been the case with the media because of his occasional tendency to throw people under the bus – not to mention the U.S. government.
But Mickelson tends to win people back because he is inherently honest; because he’ll admit to a mistake and because he never pulls the, ‘I was quoted out of context,’ dodge. He says it and either stands behind it – right or wrong – or, in the case of Sutton, concedes that he shouldn’t have gone where he went. He never said his explanation was wrong, just that he shouldn’t have brought it up 12 years later.
Now though, Mickelson is a hero and no one can say he blundered into it. He put himself directly in front of the firing squad and heard, ‘ready, aim …’ as he stepped to the tee on Friday morning. Then he went out and turned it all around. He got a little bit lucky when Rory McIlroy played his worst match of the week and Andrew Sullivan played like what he was – a scared-half-to-death Ryder Cup rookie – allowing he and Rickie Fowler to win a match they probably should have lost. Then he split two matches on Saturday as the U.S. built a crucial but nerve-inducing (given the memories of Medinah) three-point lead.
Sunday, though, was Mickelson’s crowning moment – even though he only halved his singles match with old nemesis Sergio Garcia. Both men played brilliantly – Mickelson had 10 birdies and one bogey; Garcia nine birdies.
It is remarkable sometimes how Mickelson brings out the best in opponents: Justin Rose even commented about that to him after their singles match in 2012 – and that was before Rose outplayed him down the stretch at Merion in 2013. Henrik Stenson became Ben Crenshaw on the greens at Royal Troon this summer, meaning Mickelson shot 65 on the last day of a major championship and lost ground because Stenson shot an otherworldly 63. On Sunday, Mickelson shot 63 and still didn’t get a win because Garcia matched him.
But when the day was over, Mickelson had won. He had put his putter where his mouth had been and the U.S. had a victory it will revel in for the next two years. The fact that Europe had six rookies on the team – four of whom combined to go 1-8 – and the fact that Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer went 1-6 doesn’t really matter. As the late, great Jim Valvano once said, “A W is a W and an L is an L, no matter how you explain it.” The U.S. finally got a W on Sunday.
Because of the construct of his team, Darren Clarke was in an almost impossible position, trying to win a Ryder Cup with six effective players. McIlroy even admitted after his loss to Patrick Reed – in as electric a singles match as you’ll ever hope to see – that the weight of the entire weekend may have worn on him a little bit mentally.
That wasn’t excuse-making, that was fact. On the other hand, all 12 Americans scored at least one point and Reed and Brandt Snedeker were nothing short of amazing.
But this was Mickelson’s win, his finest hour. You can point to all the other factors that led to the American players pouring champagne into each other’s mouths on Sunday, but when all is said and done, this win – perhaps more than any other in his Hall of Fame career – is the one he will cherish most.