Players must be invested regardless of captain

Phil Mickelson was critical of captain Tom Watson after the United States was beaten by Europe at the 2014 Ryder Cup. (Getty)

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Phil Mickelson hit the nail on the head Sunday during the American Ryder Cup team’s post-blowout news conference in Scotland.

He didn’t do it intentionally, but he did it. In one of the more classic passive-aggressive attacks ever seen on a public stage, Mickelson longed for the pod days of 2008 when Paul Azinger was captain, saying he couldn’t understand why American captains who followed Azinger – notably Tom Watson – had failed to see the genius in what Azinger had done.

“There were two things that Paul Azinger did to allow us to play our best,” Mickelson said. “One was that he got everybody invested in the process, in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, when they were going to play.”

The four key words there are ‘invested in the process.’

Let’s parse the phrase for a moment. In essence, what Mickelson said was this: If Watson had spent more time asking the players in general – and Mickelson specifically – what they thought he should do, the players would have been more invested.

So players need to have the captain consult with them to be invested in playing in the Ryder Cup? Can that be possible, especially after the litany of failures produced by U.S. teams dating to 1995? Can it be possible that American players who know their country has won on European soil once – with Watson as captain in 1993 – since 1981 (1-6-1 with Europe retaining after the 1989 tie) might not be invested in playing unless the captain seeks their thoughts on practice pairings, dinner menus, clothing choices and who wants to play with whom?

Sadly, the answer is yes.

It isn’t as if the Americans don’t try or don’t want to win. They do. Mickelson is sick of hearing that he has a losing Ryder Cup record as a team member (2-8) and as an individual (16-19-6) and the absent Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk are just as sick of having their losing numbers thrown in their faces. There’s no doubt that Mickelson’s response had as much to do with being weary of asked all the ‘why did you lose this time?’ questions as his frustration with being benched by Watson on Saturday.

Mickelson will be the American captain someday. When it was suggested he might be the next captain, he rejected the notion. All players want to play as long as they can. But when Mickelson is the captain, he may find out that the secret to success has nothing to do with pods and everything to do with passion and putts that go in the hole.

No one – least of all Watson – would claim that the captain had a good week. It would be close to impossible to make such a claim after losing, 16½ to 11½. Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed should have played Friday afternoon and Mickelson should have rested his 44-year-old body and then come back fresh with partner Keegan Bradley on Saturday morning. Watson stayed inside the box on his captain’s picks – Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson – and none of them did much to help the cause, combining to go 2-5-2.

They certainly weren’t the only ones to not play especially well – has anyone seen Bubba Watson yet? – but if Tom Watson had the picks to do over he might have given consideration to Brandt Snedeker, who in addition to being a great putter would have brought some extra life to the team room; or Gary Woodland, who would at least have brought some of the intimidating length off the tee that was lost when Dustin Johnson suspended himself in August.

But that’s not why the U.S. lost.

“Tom could have put his players out there in alphabetical order or by shoe size and we still would have lost,” David Feherty said. “The reason Europe won was because it was better and it played better. The reason we won in 2008 was because we played better – pods or not pods. It’s really very simple.”

Exactly. It’s that’s simple.

The question then is this: why does it seem that Europe almost always plays better when it has to; makes the putts or the chip-ins that decide close matches? The answer may very well go back to Mickelson: they are more invested in the Ryder Cup.

The captain, whether it’s Paul McGinley or Jose Maria Olazabal or Colin Montgomerie, doesn’t have to consult with his players on who they want to play with or who they don’t want to play with. McGinley decided not to pair Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell last weekend as much because they hadn’t played especially well together in the past as because of their legal entanglements.

It isn’t as if the European players walk into their team room singing “Kumbaya” every two years on the Monday before the matches start. Nick Faldo commented once that the reason he was paired with Montgomerie when Montgomerie was a young player was, “because none of the other guys much wanted to play with me.”

He wasn’t lying.

There’s been plenty of animosity among European players through the years. But it all goes away the week of the Ryder Cup. None of the Europeans come out and tell the media how close they’re becoming by playing ping pong. They just show up on the first tee completely invested in winning.

And then they go out and win.

PGA of America president Ted Bishop asked Watson to captain because he thought the team needed Watson’s tough-love brand of leadership. If Davis Love III had a weakness as captain in 2012 it was that he tried too hard to keep his players happy. Love acceded to Mickelson’s desire to sit out Saturday afternoon at Medinah even though he and Bradey had been absolutely dominant in their three matches.

Mickelson was happy with Love for listening to him but Love not telling Mickelson to take a long hot shower and then go back out and play might have been the turning point of those matches. This time, Mickelson was unhappy with Watson for not playing him and Bradley at all on Saturday.

Which all gets back to Feherty’s theory: You can put the players in pods or in bumper-cars or in ping-pong pods and the outcome of the matches is still going to be decided by who plays better golf.

In eight of the last 10 Ryder Cups the more emotionally invested team has been Europe. The fact that Mickelson, or anyone else, would believe that it is somehow up to the captain to get the players invested in playing the Ryder Cup may go a long way to explaining why the U.S. has been such a consistent loser the last 20 years.

The American players need to figure out how to be 100 percent invested when they step on the first tee regardless of who is the captain.

Period.