OLD WESTBURY, N.Y. – “What did he shoot, 2 [over]?” Steve Stricker asked as a cool morning gave way to the last vestiges of summer at Glen Oaks on Thursday.
Although he’d just finished a round of 4 over himself, Stricker’s focus was squarely on Phil Mickelson and how he fared on Day 1 of what is essentially an eight-round Presidents Cup qualifier.
The toughest part of Stricker’s job as the U.S. Presidents Cup captain has been made that much more complicated by Mickelson’s performance this season which has left the southpaw 18th on the points list and in danger of not playing for a U.S. team, any team, for the first time since 1994.
As the Sept. 4 deadline approaches, Mickelson’s plight has been particularly consuming for Stricker, who will make his two captain’s picks following the final round of next week’s Dell Technologies Championship.
Although two stellar weeks could make all of Stricker’s anxiety go away, Mickelson’s start at The Northern Trust wasn’t exactly encouraging, and the fact that Lefty has just a single top-10 finish in the last five months is hard to ignore.
He is, however, Phil Mickelson.
“I’m going to talk to him when this is all over the next two weeks and see how he’s feeling,” Stricker said. “He deserves that, more than anything. He’s been a part of so many teams and he’s shown when he’s down to 30th on the points that he can come and contribute and contribute in a big way.”
Although Stricker stopped short of giving Mickelson the keys to the kingdom when it comes to a potential captain’s pick, it seems clear that when the time comes Lefty will have a voice at the table which creates an interesting dynamic for a player who has never lacked for confidence.
Even if Mickelson doesn’t catch lightning in a bottle over the next fortnight, it’s hard to imagine that the inner competitor would concede that he’s not playing well enough to contribute to the U.S. team at Liberty National.
Asked on Thursday at Glen Oaks if he thought he could be “honest” with Stricker when the time comes Mickelson said, “I will be. I will be.”
Perhaps Mickelson will be able to come to terms with his Presidents Cup plight, but that still leaves Stricker faced with an ever-evolving reality. If not Phil, then who?
“No one else is really standing out in my mind right now. [Kevin] Chappell has played well, he’s No. 11, but 12 through 20 no one has really done anything. I’m looking for someone to really step up and play some good golf,” Stricker said. “If nobody does, then it will be a tough pick.”
That list of would-be picks includes Chappell at No. 11, Brian Harman (12), Jason Dufner (13), Gary Woodland (14), Brandt Snedeker (15), Brendan Steele (16) and Ryan Moore (17).
Of those six players ranked 12th to 17th, only one (Woodland at the Canadian Open) has a top-10 finish over the last month – although Moore did finish tied for 13th at the PGA – and Snedeker recently announced he was done playing this season due to an injury to his sternum joint.
Stricker is also eyeing a team that currently includes five Presidents Cup rookies (to be fair, Koepka’s experience at last year’s Ryder Cup would mitigate some of that inexperience).
Without the likes of Mickelson - who has evolved into the team-room leader - or Jim Furyk, an assistant captain for this year’s matches there’s the potential for a leadership vacuum. Who fills that space without Lefty?
“I don’t know, that’s a good question,” Stricker said. “There could be potentially a lot of leaders. We have [assistant captains] Tiger Woods in our locker room, Davis Love, Freddie [Couples], Jim Furyk. Jordan Spieth is a veteran in so many ways except for his age, there are a lot of guys who are going to lead by example.”
There’s no denying that Mickelson brings more to the team room than just a 23-16-12 record in the matches, and from Stricker’s point of view there’s no statistic to accurately quantify what that means.
“He’s got a calming influence,” Stricker said. “He thinks about everything, he’s got a lot of knowledge. He’s a team guy. He’s important for the team.”
A few weeks ago at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, Stricker spoke with Mickelson, encouraged him and offered a final thought, “you’ve got to show me a little bit more than what you’ve shown lately.”
For those who know Stricker, it was entirely out of character and the U.S. captain quickly offered an apology.
“It’s weird coming from a guy who has never won any majors and only won 12 times on Tour telling Phil, 'Hey you’ve got to show me more.' That doesn’t sound right coming from me.”
To Mickelson’s credit, he acknowledged that his current form simply won’t due regardless of how beneficial his experience and leadership could be to what promises to be a young U.S. team.
“I've got to bring something to the table,” Mickelson said. “If I can play well this week and next week and show that I'm playing as well as I know I'm playing, but the only thing that matters is the score.”
All season Mickelson has said his game is close, but now so is a deadline that could potentially end one of the most impressive streaks in golf unless he can turn things around in a hurry.