Hawk's Nest: Phil sends message with FedEx fatigue

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Two of the game’s biggest names, two funny-looking withdrawals at halftime of the BMW Championship.

On the surface, the WDs are unrelated, although it’s hard not to remember how Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley formed such a potent duo two years ago in that biennial match-play shindig vs. the Europeans.

Mickelson’s explanation for pulling out was strikingly candid — almost defiant as an ode to the independent contractor: “My primary goal is to rest and prepare for the Ryder Cup,” he announced. Those words surely delighted the neckties in Camp Ponte Vedra, which can’t quite convince its own membership that everyone else’s events aren’t as big as their own.

The Euro bout is still three weeks off, however, and if Mickelson had been in contention at Cherry Hills, he obviously wouldn’t have flown home Friday night, which forces us to read between the lines. When you’ve won five majors, 42 PGA Tour events and earned approximately a half-billion doing it, a slim shot at another $10 million doesn’t rock your planet.

Rich people don’t buy lottery tickets.

Bradley, meanwhile, bailed over a Thursday rule violation that went unpenalized, a case of guilt trumping a plugged lie in the public eye.

“It’s eating me alive,” Keegs said of the incident, which involved free relief from an embedded ball on a greenside bank at the 18th. “I know [a Tour official] approved the drop, but I just can’t be sure it was the right spot.”

You can’t touch a man who overdoses on chivalry, especially when it costs you a spot in the Tour Championship — Bradley fell from 28th to 33rd by taking himself out of the tournament. Again, there are some murky circumstances here, as Keegs’ morality needle didn’t start spiking until a fan questioned him after the round over whether the ball was truly embedded.

I’m no criminal, but if I’m cleared of any wrongdoing before some dude claims he saw my ball bounce, I get eight hours of sound sleep and keep playing. Unless Tom Watson is the one who snitched on me, I don’t give up my leap at $10 million just because I got a favorable ruling on a pure judgment call.

As a combo platter, the Mickelson-Bradley departures represent cold, hard reality in a league where massive amounts of money are paid to the contestants and the pile of obligations keeps getting taller and thicker. Mickelson is 44 years old. All that is left for him to do is to add a touch of varnish to his legacy, and he’s never been particularly stellar in the Ryder Cup.

So he walks away from the third FedEx Cup playoff tilt to reintroduce himself to his children and fall in love with the game again. He has played five tournaments in the last six weeks. His kids have started school and he hasn’t been around. At this point, the man just wants to go home.

If you work in a factory or lay bricks for a living, you probably can’t comprehend it, but the grind of competitive golf comes with a point of diminishing returns. In 2012, Camp Ponte Vedra slotted a bye week between the BMW and Tour Championship. The Ryder Cup was played at Medinah that fall — those involved in both events went straight from Atlanta to Chicago. No big deal. Captain Watson is said to have asked the Tour for an off week after Atlanta, however, allowing his squad to catch its break before heading overseas. Fair enough, but with Tiger Woods removed from the scene, Mickelson struggling to stay motivated and the first three postseason gatherings producing little suspense, this year’s playoffs have produced the biggest collective clunker in its eight-year history.

Too many format flaws + decreased starpower = a big fat shortage of buzz. This wasn’t the year to go four consecutive weeks, but if there had been a bye, how many people would have noticed?

MICKELSON HAS NEVER been a fan of bunching the playoff events together. You may recall that in the inaugural postseason series (2007), he won the Deutsche Bank Championship, then announced on national television that he’d be skipping the BMW because he didn’t like the schedule.

“They don’t listen to me,” he said at the time regarding his more vehement protests to the Tour.

“We listen to him,” a vice president replied, “but that doesn’t mean we’re going to do what he tells us to do.”

It’s not just the big boys who aren’t crazy about the system. veteran player Bob Estes tweeted on Sunday, “From day one, I’ve said that the FedEx Cup playoff should only be three events. Four is one too many.”

He may not actually know it, but I’ve hired recently retired tour pro Joe Ogilvie to serve as commissioner of the Hawk’s Nest. Ogilvie is in charge of assessing front-burner topics and how the Tour handles those matters, and so I asked him if Mickelson and/or Bradley should be fined or reprimanded for scooting out on tournaments without a suitable cause.

“No, because [Tim Finchem] screwed the FedEx Cup anyway when he went four in a row,” came the response. “Bradley, you can’t fine in any circumstance. I give Finchem a failing grade this year. Dustin Johnson, the website [pgatour.com], sacrificing what is best for the FedEx Cup to the Ryder Cup without getting anything in return ...”

Gee whiz, Joseph. Congratulations. You’ve just won Employee of the Month.

SOMEBODY HAS TO play with Bubba. And in final analysis, that’s what led to Webb Simpson getting a spot on the U.S. Ryder Cup team. Simpson-Watson won their first three partnered matches at the 2011 Presidents Cup, triggering an American rout at Royal Melbourne, and Simpson did most of the heavy lifting.

The pair was also a success at Medinah, wrapping a couple of 5-and-4 triumphs around a tough loss to Ian Poulter/Justin Rose. Simpson’s even-keel demeanor is a fine complement to the high-strung lefty — the more Bubba accomplishes, the more irritable he seems to become, at least on the course.

Nobody’s going to come out and say it, but Watson can be a handful as both an opponent and a teammate. He’s hard on himself, harder on his caddie (Ted Scott) and quite willing to express his opinion on just about anything. Besides, it’s not like Simpson was buried beneath a few-dozen bodies on the U.S. points list. He finished 15th — two spots behind Bradley and 10 ahead of Hunter Mahan.

Skipper Tom Watson admitted he wasn’t fully aware of Simpson-Watson’s prior success until shortly before announcing his picks last Tuesday, which is a bit scary. Simpson’s 2014 was by no means awful, although he did miss the cut at three of the four majors and the Players.

A victory in Las Vegas last fall technically makes him a 2014 champion. Otherwise, there were four top-fives, all at weak-field events. I am of the firm belief that Captain Watson had his eye on experienced Ryder Cuppers from the very start — a 65-year-old iconoclast isn’t going to pick a rookie for a road game against an opponent that is an overwhelming favorite.

THAT WAS A different Billy Horschel who won Sunday at Cherry Hills. The old Billy used to yell at his golf ball on just about every shot, good or bad, displaying an animated streak that set him apart from a vast majority of his tour-pro brethren.

It’s funny how we watch a guy on TV one week and decide whether we like or dislike him primarily by his body language and behavior. My late mother was one of the kindest people to ever walk the earth — the apple falls miles from the tree sometimes — and a huge golf fan who just didn’t care for Davis Love III.

“He’s one of the most likeable people I’ve ever covered,” I told her more than twice.

“But he never smiles,” she would say. “He looks like he just got out of the dentist’s chair.”

Horschel definitely rubbed some golf fans wrong with his histrionics, but when I met him at the 2013 PGA Championship, I couldn’t have been more impressed. Nice kid, very respectful, and if he ever makes a Ryder Cup team, America will be the better for it.

Having gone through the transcripts of Horschel’s interviews at Cherry Hills, I’m surprised nobody asked him about the changes in his on-course demeanor. He was questioned repeatedly about the 6-iron he knocked into the hazard on the 72nd hole at the Deutsche Bank, which killed any chance he had of beating Chris Kirk, and for good reason.

That was a mistake no quality tour pro should make. It says something about Horschel’s toughness that he came back and won the very next week, but let’s not get carried away with his future. The last guy to do something similar was Kyle Stanley, and we haven’t seen him since.