Phil the big winner in Ryder Cup triumph

By John FeinsteinOctober 6, 2016, 3:40 pm

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.”

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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.

He’s entitled.

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Recovering Thomas thinks Match Play could help cause

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 10:07 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – It’s been a tough couple of days for Justin Thomas, and he hasn’t played an event in three weeks.

The world’s second-ranked player had his wisdom teeth removed on March 7 following the WGC-Mexico Championship and has been recovering ever since.

“I'm feeling OK. As funny as it is, as soon as I got over my wisdom teeth, I got a little strep throat,” Thomas said on Tuesday at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. “I was pretty worried yesterday, to be honest, how I was going to be doing, but I feel a lot better today and just keep taking medicine and hopefully it will be good.”

Thomas, who is listed in the Tour media guide as 5-foot-10, 145 pounds, said he lost about 6 pounds when he had his wisdom teeth removed and has struggled to put that weight back on because of his bout with strep throat.

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As a result, his energy levels are low, which is a particular concern considering the marathon nature of the Match Play, which could include as many as seven rounds if he were to advance to Sunday’s championship match. Thomas, however, said the format could actually make things easier this week.

“I told my dad, I only have to beat one person each day. I don't have to beat the whole field,” said Thomas, who has won just one match in two starts at the Match Play. “If it was stroke play then I may have a little harder time. But hopefully each day I'll get better and better. Who knows, maybe that will help me win a match in this golf tournament, because I've had a pretty hard time in the past.”

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Spieth thought Mickelson blew him off as a kid

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:50 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – Phil Mickelson is widely recognized as one of the PGA Tour’s most accommodating players when it comes to the fans and signing autographs.

Lefty will famously spend hours after rounds signing autographs, but sometimes perception can deviate from reality, as evidenced by Jordan Spieth’s encounter with Mickelson years ago when he was a junior golfer.

“I think I was at the [AT&T] Byron Nelson with my dad and Phil Mickelson and Davis Love were on the putting green. I was yelling at them, as I now get annoyed while I'm practicing when I'm getting yelled at, and they were talking,” Spieth recalled. “When they finished, Phil was pulled off in a different direction and Davis came and signed for me. And I thought for the longest time that Phil just blew me off. And Davis was like the nicest guy. And Phil, I didn't care for as much for a little while because of that.”

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Entering his sixth full season on Tour, Spieth now has a drastically different perspective on that day.

“[Mickelson] could have been late for media. He could have been having a sponsor obligation. He could have been going over to sign for a kid’s area where there was a hundred of them,” Spieth said. “There's certainly been kids that probably think I've blown them off, too, which was never my intention. It would have never been Phil's intention either.”

Spieth said he has spoken with Mickelson about the incident since joining the Tour.

“He probably responded with a Phil-like, ‘Yeah, I knew who you were, and I didn't want to go over there and sign it,’ something like that,” Spieth laughed. “I’ve gotten to see him in person and really see how genuine he is with everybody he comes in contact with. Doesn't matter who it is. And he's a tremendous role model and I just wasn't aware back then.”

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This week, let the games(manship) begin

By Rex HoggardMarch 20, 2018, 7:47 pm

AUSTIN, Texas – The gentleman’s game is almost entirely devoid of anything even approaching trash talk or gamesmanship.

What’s considered the norm in other sports is strictly taboo in golf - at least that’s the standard for 51 weeks out of the year. That anomaly, however, can be wildly entertaining.

During Monday’s blind draw to determine this week’s 16 pods, Pat Perez was the first to suggest that this week’s WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play is the exception to the stoic rule on the PGA Tour.

“Me and Branden [Grace] played a nine-hole match today and were chirping at each other the entire time,” Perez laughed. “Stuff like, ‘go in the trees.’ We were laughing about it, I didn’t get mad, I hit it in the trees.”

Although Perez and Grace may have been on the extreme end of the trash-talk spectrum, it’s widely understood that unlike the steady diet of stroke-play stops in professional golf, the Match Play and the Ryder Cup are both chances to test some of the game’s boundaries.

“There’s been a couple of different instances, both in the Ryder Cup. I can't share them with you, I'm sorry,” laughed Jordan Spieth, before adding. “I think they [the comments] were indifferent to me and helped [U.S. partner Patrick Reed].

Often the gamesmanship is subtle, so much so an opponent probably doesn’t even realize what’s happening.

Jason Day, for example, is a two-time winner of this event and although he was reluctant to go into details about all of his “tricks,” he did explain his mindset if he finds himself trailing in a match.

“Always walk forward in front of the person that you're playing against, just so you're letting them know that you're pushing forward and you're also letting them know that you're still hanging around,” Day explained. “People feed off body language. If I'm looking across and the guy's got his shoulders slumped and his head is down, you can tell he's getting frustrated, that's when you push a little bit harder.”

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Some moments are not so innocent, as evidenced by a story from Paul Casey from a match during his junior days growing up in England.

“I remember a player’s ball was very close to my line, as his coin was very close to my line and we were still both about 10 feet away and he kind of looked at me,” Casey recalled. “I assumed he looked at me to confirm whether his marker was in my line and it needed to be moved. I said, ‘That's OK there.’ So he picked [his coin] up. And then of course he lost his ability to understand English all of a sudden.”

While the exploits this week won’t be nearly as egregious, there have been a handful of heated encounters at the Match Play. In 2015 when this event was played at Harding Park in San Francisco, Keegan Bradley and Miguel Angel Jimenez went nose to nose when the Spaniard attempted to intervene in a ruling that Bradley was taking and the incident even spilled over into the locker room after the match.

But if those types of encounters are rare, there’s no shortage of mind games that will take place over the next few days at Austin Country Club.

“It's part of it. It should be fun,” Spieth said. “There should be some gamesmanship. That's the way it is in every other sport, we just never play one-on-one or team versus team like other sports do. That's why at times it might seem way out of the ordinary. If every tournament were match play, I don't think that would be unusual.”

It also helps heat things up if opponents have some history together. On Tuesday, Rory McIlroy was asked if he’s run across any gamesmanship at the Match Play. While the Northern Irishman didn’t think there would be much trash talking going on this week, he did add with a wry smile, “Patrick Reed isn’t in my bracket.”

McIlroy and Reed went head-to-head in an epic singles duel at the 2016 Ryder Cup, which the American won 1 up. The duo traded plenty of clutch shots during the match, with Reed wagging his finger at McIlroy following a particularly lengthy birdie putt and McIlroy spurring the crowd with roars of, “I can’t hear you.”

It was an example of how chippy things can get at the Match Play that when McIlroy was asked if he had any advice for Spieth, who drew Reed in his pod this week, his answer had a bit of a sharp edge.

“Don't ask for any drops,” laughed McIlroy, a not-so-subtle reference to Reed’s comment last week at Bay Hill after being denied free relief by a rules official, “I guess my name needs to be Jordan Spieth, guys,” Reed said on Sunday.

Put another way, this is not your grandfather’s game. This is the Match Play where trash talking and gamesmanship are not only acceptable, but can also be extremely entertaining.

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Romo set to make PGA Tour debut at Punta Cana

By Will GrayMarch 20, 2018, 6:43 pm

While much of the attention in golf this week will be focused on the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in Austin, Tony Romo may send a few eyeballs toward the Caribbean.

The former quarterback and current CBS NFL analyst will make his PGA Tour debut this week, playing on a sponsor invite at the Corales Punta Cana Resort & Club Championship in the Dominican Republic. The exemption was announced last month when Romo played as an amateur at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, and he's apparently been hard at work ever since.

"I'll be treating it very serious," Romo told reporters Tuesday. "My wife will tell you she hasn't seen me much over the last month. But if you know me at all, I think you know if I care about something I'm going to commit to it 100 percent. So like I said. you'll get the best I've got this week."

Romo retired from the NFL last year and plays to a plus-0.3 handicap. In addition to his participation in the Pebble Beach event, he has tried to qualify for the U.S. Open multiple times and last month played a North Texas PGA mini-tour event as an amateur.

According to Romo, one of the key differences between pro football and golf is the fact that his former position is entirely about reactive decisions, while in golf "you're trying to commit wholeheartedly before you ever pull the club out of your bag."

"I'm not worried about getting hit before I hit the ball," Romo said. "It's at my own tempo, my own speed, in this sport. Sometimes that's difficult, and sometimes that's easier depending on the situation."

Romo admitted that he would have preferred to have a couple extra weeks to prepare, but recently has made great strides in his wedge game which "was not up to any Tour standard." The first-tee jitters can't be avoided, but Romo hopes to settle in after battling nerves for the first three or four holes Thursday.

Romo hopes to derive an added comfort factor from his golf in the Dallas area, where he frequently plays with a group of Tour pros. While Steph Curry traded texts with a few pros before his tournament debut last summer on the Tour, Romo expects his phone to remain silent until he puts a score on the board.

"I think they're waiting to either tell me 'Congrats' or 'I knew it, terrible,'" Romo said. "Something along those lines. They're probably going to wait to see which way the wind's blowing before they send them."

Romo will tee off at 8:10 a.m. ET Thursday alongside Dru Love and Denny McCarthy.