Call me old school, but I prefer mid-tournament withdrawals to occur when a player comes down with a slight case of pre-round broken leg. Or maybe when – apologies for the mental image - he can’t keep any food down on the course. Or even in the rare circumstance when he’s going to become a father and chooses being in the delivery room over 18 holes.
Hey, that’s part of the allure of being a professional golfer – as an independent contractor, you don’t need to explain to a general manager or coach why you can’t play on a given day. In fact, you don’t need any explanation at all. Players can withdraw mid-tournament without reason and without any penalty, which prompted one of their brethren to refer to a recent spate of early exits as an “epidemic” just a few months ago.
All of which leads us to Phil Mickelson, who WD’d from the BMW Championship in the wee hours of Saturday morning based on this theory: He needs time to prepare for the Ryder Cup.
“Without a chance to contend at the Tour Championship,” he said in a statement, “the most important thing for me now is to prepare for the Ryder Cup.”
The first issue here is that Mickelson stole away from Cherry Hills like a thief in the night, leaving a tournament he had constantly maintained he was excited about while mired in a share of 63rd place in the 69-man field.
On the scale of poor form, this ranks somewhere between societal faux pas and unlawful surrender. Over the past two decades, no player has better understood the business of building a brand and protecting an image. By fleeing like the old Baltimore Colts in their Mayflower trucks (do they make private jets, too?), Mickelson undoubtedly knows he triple-bogeyed this latest public relations test.
The bigger issue is that it contrasts everything we’ve always known about the unsinkable lefthander. This is a guy who rarely misses a Shell Houston Open or FedEx St. Jude Classic or Scottish Open, because he prefers to prepare for big events by being in the heat of competition.
“The more I play, the sharper I get and usually the second or third tournament is when I play my best,” he explained last year. “That’s why I like to have a tournament before a major, because a major’s penalty for a miss is so severe you’ve got to be sharp on each shot right from the gate.”
The Ryder Cup will begin exactly three weeks after Mickelson’s final competitive round of the season, which means his WD is the antithesis of his usual preparation. It also comes across as disingenuous based on recent comments.
He’s been uncharacteristically indecisive in recent weeks. After missing the secondary cut at The Barclays, he insisted, “I’m barely keeping my sanity, I’m so frustrated.” Days later, before the Deutsche Bank Championship, he maintained, “I don’t have high expectations. My game will be a crapshoot.” And yet, after finishing T-45 there, he claimed, “I haven’t driven the ball this well in a long time and my putter felt great.”
Yes, he can turn his game on in a hurry, which is why it’s puzzling that he would forgo his final 36 holes of the season in favor of preparing for an event three weeks away.
Unless it isn’t, really.
Mickelson has never been shy about using his actions to help his agenda. He was never happy about four straight weeks of FedEx Cup playoff events, saying recently, “I want to do everything I can to support the PGA Tour … But I don’t ever play four weeks in a row, outside of weeks that I’m staying at my house. To play four in a row is very difficult for me.”
Maybe he’s using his status as a pulpit to get this point across. Maybe he really feels like two more days at home will leave him better prepared for the Ryder Cup. Maybe he’s just burnt out on golf right now and needs to get away from it. Maybe there are other factors at play that he simply didn’t want to make public. For a man who has dealt with his own health issues as well as those of close family members, we can only hope he isn’t masking any further problems in that area.
We can only take him on his word, though, and he contested that he needed to be fresh for the Ryder Cup. For a player who has spent a career doing and saying the right thing so often, one who whips galleries into a frenzy based on his aggressive nature, this maneuver feels like a risk-reward that wasn’t worth the risk.