CHASKA, Minn. – A few weeks back, a member of the U.S. team had an interesting question: Who will get credit for the Ryder Cup task force?
Of course, that ignores the possibility of a loss, which would necessitate a different conversation involving blame, but those details will fall into place on Sunday afternoon at Hazeltine National.
Either way, for many the answer to both questions is Phil Mickelson.
Had Lefty not stepped up two years ago following the U.S. team’s loss at Gleneagles and spoken out, in all likelihood the PGA of America would have forged ahead as normal.
Mickelson’s comments in the cold, Scottish night 24 months ago have been incorrectly interpreted as an attack on then-captain Tom Watson, but it had more to do with the culture than the captain.
“We have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best,” Mickelson said in 2014.
From that dissent emerged last year’s task force which begat a committee and eventually Love’s second turn at the helm. Throughout it all, Mickelson hasn’t hidden his interest or impact.
Last month, he talked of the detailed plan already in place for this week’s matches, and on Sunday at East Lake he openly questioned the new Billy Horschel pick that led Love to select Ryan Moore to fill out the American dozen.
Love may be wearing the captain’s hat, but it’s become increasingly clear that Mickelson is the man behind the curtain.
“Phil always has a theory,” Love said. “He had a theory about the debate [Monday] night, and he'll have a theory about who is going to win the games on Saturday. But I used to say he was 50/50 and then I gave him 75 percent and I'm moving him up to maybe 80 percent. I like the way he thinks and I like his planning.”
Whether you cheer or jeer Lefty, it’s a leadership deal.
After 22 years of trial and largely error, he’s had enough of a losing culture. By all accounts, he’s been engaged in this process and by all indications his ideas have been embraced.
Mickelson’s motivations and the minutia of the last year aside, the sum total of the task force has been to give the players a voice and Lefty’s is standing out among the crowd.
“When players are put in a position to succeed, more often than not, they tend to succeed and when they are put in positions to fail, most of the time they tend to fail,” he said. “This is a year where we feel as though Captain Love has been putting us in a position to succeed.”
Specifically, Love & Co. are trying to treat this week as they would any other event – practice, prepare and play with as few distractions and deviations as possible.
By way of example, Mickelson explained that in 2004 at Oakland Hills he and Tiger Woods were set up for failure by captain Hal Sutton.
The duo was told two days before the matches began they would be paired together, leading Mickelson to spend a few scrambling hours trying to learn how to play Woods’ high-spin golf ball.
“I'm taking four or five hours and I'm out trying to learn another ball to allow us to play our best,” Mickelson said. “Had we known a month in advance, we might have been able to make it work. I think we probably would have made it work.”
The duo dropped both matches on Day 1 and the misguided pairing has largely defined Phil and Tiger’s relationship in the Ryder Cup, at least until this week.
Never before have Tiger and Phil’s fate been so intertwined, not on the golf course, where the duo have had far too few head-to-head duels, and certainly not away from the course.
But this Ryder Cup and the ongoing dialogue has created a connection between the game’s two brightest stars the last two decades that hadn’t existed before.
“It's been great. The last few weeks, we've been talking on the phone multiple times a day,” Mickelson said of Woods, who also served on the task force and is a vice captain this week.
“It's been really exciting for us because we've been on so many teams for so many years, and to have this much input and involvement in the process, the way Davis has implemented everybody's input, the way he's brought everybody together and their ideas, has been truly an inclusive process and it's been fun for Tiger and I.”
The crucial difference for Woods this week is that he won’t hit a golf shot. Mickelson will.
Some, including 2014 European captain Paul McGinley, have suggested Mickelson is under the most pressure this week. Pressure to prove the changes he helped herald were a step in the right direction, pressure to improve a less-than-stellar Ryder Cup record (16-19-6 and a .500 mark in singles play), pressure to put the U.S. team on the right path.
This will fall on deaf ears, particularly if the putts don’t fall the U.S. team’s way this week, but the task force and all that followed was designed to create a winning legacy not necessarily a winning outcome in 2016.
“This is the foundation week for us,” Mickelson explained. “This is the week where all the past captains, past vice captains, PGA of America officials, caddies, have had involvement in the decision-making process. We'll work forward and keep continuity into 2018 and from that we'll build on in 2020.”
Those inside the task force bubble understand that measured reality, those on the outside will not.
To some, the 41st Ryder Cup is a referendum on Mickelson. Love may be the captain, Tiger a vice captain, but it was Lefty who led the charge for wholesale change, and the relative success or failure of that transformation depends, however unfairly, on this week’s outcome.