CHASKA, Minn. – A few blunt answers started a Ryder Cup revolution.
Undermined by poor leadership and a lack of player input, the Americans were throttled at the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland, their third consecutive defeat in the biennial matches. In the awkward news conference afterward, a reporter asked any of the 12 team members to identify what worked in 2008 (when the U.S. last won) and what has gone wrong since.
That’s when Phil Mickelson leaned into the microphone.
Having made 10 consecutive Ryder Cup teams, Lefty was an authoritative source. He described in detail how every member of the Paul Azinger-led squad was “invested in the process” – the picks, the pairings, the pods. Everything.
“Unfortunately,” Mickelson said, “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.”
It sounded like a damning indictment of that year’s captain, Tom Watson, who was positioned only a few seats away. So to follow up, Mickelson was asked: Players weren’t involved at Gleneagles?
“Uh, no,” he said. “Nobody here was in [on] any decision.”
For the next few weeks, the focus was not on another European victory but how the Americans – losers of eight of the past 10 competitions – were seemingly imploding. Hours of airtime were devoted to whether Mickelson violated some unwritten code by calling out his captain on live TV, but it’s clear now, two years later, that expressing those views, in that forum, in front of his teammates and PGA officials, was the only way to initiate meaningful change.
Asked recently whether the U.S. team would be in its current position without his public stance, Mickelson smirked. “It doesn’t really matter, because are we here. How we got here doesn’t matter,” he said. “We’re trying to look forward now. We have this fresh start, this fresh involvement. We have an actual game plan. We know who is going to be playing with who, when they’re going to be playing, what matches – we have time now to work together and create that partnership.
“We’re not being told 30 minutes before we tee off who we’re going to play. These vice captains and captains have given us a real game plan and sense of continuity well before the Ryder Cup has even started.”
That’s because 15 days after Mickelson’s candid assessment of the U.S. team, the PGA of America announced the creation of an 11-man task force, comprised of past captains, top players (including two of the game’s biggest stars, Mickelson and Tiger Woods) and PGA leaders. In the release, then-president Ted Bishop trumpeted the task force as part of larger goal in “developing the right strategy and building ongoing processes and infrastructure for future generations of U.S. teams.”
Across the pond, and even here in the States, the formation of a task force was widely mocked and viewed as the ultimate sign of desperation. After all, Europe has gone 8-2 despite having, at least according to the world rankings, the inferior team on paper. Why have the Europeans been so successful of late? “It’s not rocket science,” Rory McIlroy shrugged.
No, maybe not, but the task-force announcement was significant in that, for the first time, the PGA had agreed to surrender control of its most prized asset. “I think we’re all very appreciative that they have made that big step,” Mickelson said, “because we feel like, as a group, we are giving ourselves an opportunity to succeed, rather than obstacles to overcome.”
The initial task force was disbanded once Davis Love III was named captain, for a second time, in February 2015, and replaced with a smaller six-man committee that still includes Mickelson and Woods.
Whatever the name, this week’s matches at Hazeltine will be a referendum on Team USA’s revamped system.
“You don’t want to get too tied up in the results,” Mickelson said, “but certainly what we’re looking at is, are we able to play our best golf?”
That’s been the main difference, he contends, for the Europeans’ success – that they have such faith in their system and each other that it allowed one-hit wonders like Peter Baker (3-1 in 1993), Philip Walton (singles win in ’95) and Philip Price (singles win in 2002) to play some of the best golf of their lives during the taut three-day exhibition.
“That’s not a fluke when you have a real team, a partnership, and you lift each other up to new heights,” Mickelson said. “We haven’t had that type of continuity, support system, game plan and structure from year to year.”
While Watson was an autocrat, Love has opted for a more inclusive approach, like Azinger in 2008. Love has gathered a dizzying amount of insights from a variety of sources – players, statisticians and even weatherman/vice captain Tom Lehman, who has studied the past three decades of late-September forecasts in his native Minnesota.
It all sounds so silly, of course, a classic case of American overthinking. While the U.S. side has publicized every team-building exercise – a dinner at Jack Nicklaus’ house, a night at the Patriots’ stadium, a scouting trip last week to Hazeltine – the European team has quietly gone about its preparations, clinging to the template that is passed down from captain to captain, like a playbook.
The 12-man European team was finalized four weeks ago. The Americans, meanwhile, determined to put the hottest players on the squad, turned the FedEx Cup Playoffs into a three-week audition for Captain Love. Problem was, with the added stress and expectation of competing for a spot, only one of the contenders elevated his game. (Even Mickelson conceded they waited too long.) For the final spot, the committee settled on Ryan Moore, a wise choice, but the announcement was made late Sunday night, after the season finale and during halftime of a primetime NFL game. It was another sign that the PGA might still be more interested in marketing than molding a team of 12.
Tasked with spawning a new era in USA golf, the committee instead recycled many of the same ol’ names. Brooks Koepka and Moore are the only newcomers on this year’s roster.
“If America doesn’t win,” said world No. 1 and neutral observer Jason Day, with a wry smile, “who knows what will happen to that task force.”
Over the past year and a half, Love and Co. have stuck to the script, that the formation of the task force was not just about trying to win this year, but for decades to come, creating continuity and a system to promote inclusivity, groom captains and select players.
Though the task force might have been a subtle way to shift blame away from the captain – hey, win or lose, it has been a team effort – it’s evident that the player under the most pressure this week is the same one who agitated for change: Mickelson.
The Americans can plan dinners and discuss pairings and study weather reports until they’re red, white and blue in the face. But even Mickelson concedes that the Ryder Cup still comes down to who performs best in the most pressurized environment in the sport.
Only now, he says, “we have our best chance to play our best golf.”
And that’s all he really wanted two years ago.