JERSETY CITY, N.J. – When Phil Mickelson took the microphone on that cold night in 2014 at the Ryder Cup in Scotland, some felt his comments had crossed a line and he’d unfairly called out then-U.S. captain Tom Watson.
Late Sunday at Liberty National, Mickelson sat at another post-match interview table, and although he declined to connect the dots, it was impossible not to watch the U.S. team’s domination of the International side and not see a byproduct of that stand Lefty took three years ago.
“You don't get a performance like we had this week without that little something extra, that little special something, and these guys brought it out in each other,” Mickelson said.
The U.S. has dominated the Presidents Cup for nearly two decades, but the 12th edition was something altogether different. The home team came within one match of closing out the Internationals on Saturday, previously unfathomable, and needed just a single point on Sunday to win the cup.
The outcome wasn’t nearly as close as the final margin of victory, 19-11, suggested.
The U.S. team bonded off the course, fit together seamlessly during the team sessions and responded to every move that captain Steve Stricker made. There’s no ignoring the level of young talent that has emerged on the American side or the natural friendships that some thought had been missing, but hidden behind the playful jabs and confident swagger is a comfort that can, at least in part, be traced back to that figurative pulpit Mickelson ascended to at Gleneagles.
Video: Can U.S. take dominating team to Paris in 2018?
The U.S. team, at both the Ryder and Presidents cup, has become more unified, more organized and more focused thanks to the continuity that was born from Mickelson’s moment and the actions of the Ryder Cup task force.
The players were given a voice in who and how to lead and from that has emerged a better U.S. team.
“You can look at Tiger [Woods] and Davis [Love III] and Freddie [Couples] and I, Jay Haas fit in there great, Tom Lehman fit in last year. You’re looking for guys who have a lot of experience, who buy into what we are trying to accomplish and we’re trying to get a lot of symmetry for the guys on the golf course,” said Jim Furyk, one of Stricker’s four assistant captains. “You’ll see a lot of the same guys next year when we announce the assistants for Paris.”
As the U.S. team headed back to Manhattan and what promised to be a raucous victory celebration, Furyk’s mind understandably drifted to next year’s Ryder Cup, where he will lead an American team in search of its first win on European soil since 1993.
Among the changes ushered in by the Ryder Cup task force was a legacy concept for captains. Future captains, like Furyk last year at Hazeltine National, are now brought into the process early as assistants to learn the nuances of modern leadership; and former captains, like Lehman in ’16, are added to provide historical context.
However inadvertently or organically, this concept has crossed over into the Presidents Cup.
“I’m interested in seeing who is going to be the next Presidents Cup captain. If he’s not in this group we might want to look to include him and make sure he’s part of it to make sure that symmetry lasts from year to year,” Furyk said.
For years, observers would whisper about the European playbook for the Ryder Cup, a notion that took on a life of its own when Paul McGinley led the Continent to victory in ’14. Although Furyk fended off the idea the U.S. now has a similar “blueprint,” there’s no doubt that U.S. captains for both the Presidents and Ryder cup have embraced a general outline – from grouping players in pods based on potential pairings and personalities to how captain’s picks are vetted.
Video: Mickelson's critical comments at 2014 Ryder Cup
There was a time when the U.S. side looked at the Presidents Cup as a liability, a biennial distraction that somehow took away from the intensity of the Ryder Cup and led to competitive complacency. Now, however, it’s a chance to foster continuity and give players – particularly five of the American team’s six rookies at Liberty National – a taste of team intensity.
In practical terms for Furyk, that meant evaluating established players and partnerships as well as sizing up potential newcomers on next year’s team.
“It was good getting to know a lot of the players that I didn’t know,” he said. “Matchups, pairings, personalities. We had five guys on this team that had never played on one and I thought they all played great and we learned a lot about their strengths and what they’re good at.”
Liberty National was Furyk’s third turn as an American assistant and, under a loosely defined legacy program, it won’t be his last. It’s all part of the foundation of passing experiences and lessons from captain to captain.
What he learned last week was that the U.S. side appears to have entered a new golden age of team relevance. From Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed, who improved their combined Ryder and Presidents cup record together to 8-1-3, to Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler, who paired perfectly in their first match together, the American dominance sent a very clear transatlantic message.
“I'd love to have these 12 on our team next year,” Furyk said. “I really would like them to enjoy what they did this week, soak it all in, have fun with it. A month from now we'll get to work and we'll start getting ready for Paris.”
Furyk knows as well as anyone that Louis Oosthuizen and Branden Grace aren’t Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia, and Liberty National wasn’t Le Golf National, site of next year’s matches in France.
The U.S. team may have made it look easy, but the odds and history will still be stacked against them in Paris. It’s why the continuity that was born from Mickelson’s monologue three years ago in Scotland is more important now than ever.