GLENEAGLES, Scotland – Phil Mickelson will speak about any topic. Really. Just ask him. Want to chat politics? He’ll offer a position on tax reform. The big game? He’ll tell you to take the underdog at home. Outer space and dinosaurs? Both subjects are right up his eclectic alley.
In a world where participants’ words are often used as extinguishers, Mickelson has never been afraid to fan a few flames. On Wednesday, he started a virtual brushfire here in the Scottish Highlands, causing commotion at a Ryder Cup where the previous biggest controversy revolved around three letters shaved into a player’s head.
When asked about competing alongside his United States teammates, Mickelson fired a shot that was almost immediately heard ‘round the world.
“Well, not only are we able to play together, we also don't litigate against each other,” he said. “And that's a real plus, I feel, heading into this week.”
That missive was a not-so-thinly veiled reference to the ongoing legal battle between European opponents Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell.
Forget that Mickelson made the comment with a smile plastered across his face. Or that he quickly retreated from those words by following with, “I couldn’t resist. Sorry.” During an emotionally charged week that had yet to charge many emotions, Mickelson’s playful jab was enough to generate plenty of buzz.
“Phil's always Phil,” grinned teammate Rickie Fowler. “That's why we love him. We hear a lot of those one-liners in practice rounds in Tuesday games, so it's nothing new to me.”
There’s little doubt Mickelson tried this line on for size in the team room before springing it upon the world. Because if we’ve learned anything from his choice of words over the years, it’s not just that he has an opinion on every topic. It’s that each of these opinions is also tinged with some sort of agenda.
What’s the agenda here? Maybe he wanted to pump some life into festivities that were clearly lacking. Maybe he wanted to take the heat off his teammates who have been continuously – and tiresomely – answering questions about being overmatched this week.
Or maybe this was a public dig at McIlroy, who hasn’t held back from opining about Mickelson lately.
Only two weeks ago, the world’s No. 1-ranked player said, “Phil's 43 or whatever he is and Tiger's nearly 40. So they're getting into the sort of last few holes of their career.” A correct statement, but a needling one nonetheless. And just Wednesday morning, when comparing his own pre-Ryder Cup equipment change with that of Mickelson’s a decade ago, he offered, “Phil Mickelson nearly hit me off the tees in 2004 … so I'm very aware of what he did that week.”
Neither comment was incendiary, but then again, neither was Mickelson’s own jab.
And yet, here at Gleneagles, where the famed tabloids have been frothing at the mouth while awaiting the slightest salacious material, it’s already being treated like another shot heard ‘round the world – the one that started the Revolutionary War.
How will this affect the Ryder Cup?!?
Will it fire up the Europeans?!? Embolden the Americans?!?
What impact will this have?!?!?!?
All of those questions will be laboriously asked, batted around by pundits like a kitten playing with a ball of yarn. They’ll have the same effect, too, going around and around until they get bored and move on to some other plaything.
It has already been pointed out that Mickelson, who was embroiled in an FBI investigation earlier this year, shouldn’t throw stones from his glass house. And that would be a fair point, if he was the type who more often used his words to extinguish rather than inflame.
Instead, he knew exactly what he was doing, taking some team room jocularity public, unleashing the first bit of xenophobic emotion into an event which will produce so much more of it beginning on Friday.
“Phil's been there and he's a leader,” explained U.S. captain Tom Watson. “He's the guy that talks. He talks smack. He talks the way you're supposed to be talking in the locker room. He talks the locker room talk and he gets people talking back to him. That's what you have to do.”
He didn’t, though, have to do … this. He didn’t have to fan those flames. He didn’t have to give the rivalry its first piece of bulletin board material this week.
No, he didn’t have to. But he wanted to.
Remember, there’s always an agenda when it comes to Mickelson’s comments. Even though this one was mentioned in a playful manner, it wasn’t a mistake. It didn’t slip out by accident. He knew what he was doing.
The reaction to this public brand of banter was swift and, in some cases, spiteful. There was a hidden rationale behind it, though, one which only he knows. As for the rest of us, well, at least it gives us a veritable ball of yarn to bat around for a few days until the real shots start being fired.