Phil the big winner in Ryder Cup triumph

By John FeinsteinOctober 6, 2016, 3:40 pm

Ever since his outburst two years ago in the post-Ryder Cup news conference at Gleneagles, Phil Mickelson has taken a lot of hits.

Some were deserved. Some were not.

But in the wake of the United States’ 17-11 thumping of Europe at Hazeltine, two things have to be said about Mickelson: He put himself on the firing line with his mouth and then he backed up everything he had said with his game.

“He’s our papa bear,” Zach Johnson said, months before the American victory. “He’s very protective of all of us.”

Johnson was trying to explain Mickelson’s angry take-down of 2014 captain Tom Watson in that now infamous news conference. Almost no one would argue that Mickelson’s timing was right or proper that evening in Scotland. He attacked one of golf’s legendary figures and, in doing so, he focused attention on himself – not the European team – which had played so superbly that weekend.

That said, even if Mickelson’s methods were heavy-handed, there was genius in his seeming madness. He wanted change – he’d wanted it for years – and he finally got it in the creation of the group formerly known as the task force, now only called a committee.

By any name, the new group did two important things: It allowed the players – six current players, two former Ryder Cup captains – to decide who should lead the U.S. effort at Hazeltine and, it looked at the European model and said, ‘If you can’t beat ’em, copy ’em.’

Mickelson, captain Davis Love III and everyone and anyone connected to the PGA of America, spent most of the week in Minnesota repeating the mantra, “The task force wasn’t just about this Ryder Cup.”

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More than anything, that was a defense mechanism in case things went wrong again. But there’s also some truth to it: The U.S. now has a plan going forward and the players will forever have that voice they believed they lacked.

No voice has been louder than Mickelson’s – from Gleneagles in September 2014, to the first task force meeting that December, to the days leading up to last week’s matches. He was a little bit like a WWE wrestler who takes on everyone in the building: first it was Watson; then it was the PGA’s captain selection system; then the media who made fun of the task force; then Hal Sutton and, finally, one last salvo directed at Watson: “To say, ‘Well, you just need to play better,’ that is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare.’”

That final shot across Watson’s bow went almost unnoticed because it came at the end of Mickelson’s diatribe on Sutton, when he insisted that Sutton had set he and Tiger Woods up “to fail” in 2004 because he didn’t give them enough warning that they were going to play together and, thus, not enough time to practice with each other’s golf balls.

Mickelson never did explain why he and Woods also lost that week or lend any credence to the notion that when partners don’t speak to one another for 36 holes, it isn’t really a positive. If the victory this past weekend was because the players were so close and a family, then wouldn’t two guys barely speaking to one another likely contribute to a defeat?

This was a different U.S. team. There wasn’t one mention all week of the players bonding through ping-pong. That they were close and got along was a given. Even the once reticent Woods, in his background role as vice captain, seemed to enjoy himself. Bubba Watson asked to be added as a last-second vice captain and then reveled in the role.

Much of the credit for that should go to Love, who, in his own way, is the Arnold Palmer of his generation. He doesn’t have Palmer’s flair or swashbuckling style, but he is universally loved and respected. If you ask Love to talk about his proudest moments in golf, he will always bring up the 1996 Presidents Cup team meeting when U.S. captain Palmer was telling his players how important it was to connect with fans, with the media and with people in general.

“Davis,” he said, pointing a finger at Love, “gets it.”

When Love tried to tell that story on Golf Channel's “Morning Drive,” the day after Palmer died, he choked up and could barely get through it.

Mickelson though, has always been a controversial figure. He has been compared with Palmer, too, because he does have Palmer’s flair and style and because fans absolutely adore him. That wasn’t always the case in the locker room when he was younger and hasn’t always been the case with the media because of his occasional tendency to throw people under the bus – not to mention the U.S. government.

But Mickelson tends to win people back because he is inherently honest; because he’ll admit to a mistake and because he never pulls the, ‘I was quoted out of context,’ dodge. He says it and either stands behind it – right or wrong – or, in the case of Sutton, concedes that he shouldn’t have gone where he went. He never said his explanation was wrong, just that he shouldn’t have brought it up 12 years later.

Now though, Mickelson is a hero and no one can say he blundered into it. He put himself directly in front of the firing squad and heard, ‘ready, aim …’ as he stepped to the tee on Friday morning. Then he went out and turned it all around. He got a little bit lucky when Rory McIlroy played his worst match of the week and Andrew Sullivan played like what he was – a scared-half-to-death Ryder Cup rookie – allowing he and Rickie Fowler to win a match they probably should have lost. Then he split two matches on Saturday as the U.S. built a crucial but nerve-inducing (given the memories of Medinah) three-point lead.

Sunday, though, was Mickelson’s crowning moment – even though he only halved his singles match with old nemesis Sergio Garcia. Both men played brilliantly – Mickelson had 10 birdies and one bogey; Garcia nine birdies.

It is remarkable sometimes how Mickelson brings out the best in opponents: Justin Rose even commented about that to him after their singles match in 2012 – and that was before Rose outplayed him down the stretch at Merion in 2013. Henrik Stenson became Ben Crenshaw on the greens at Royal Troon this summer, meaning Mickelson shot 65 on the last day of a major championship and lost ground because Stenson shot an otherworldly 63. On Sunday, Mickelson shot 63 and still didn’t get a win because Garcia matched him.

But when the day was over, Mickelson had won. He had put his putter where his mouth had been and the U.S. had a victory it will revel in for the next two years. The fact that Europe had six rookies on the team – four of whom combined to go 1-8 – and the fact that Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer went 1-6 doesn’t really matter. As the late, great Jim Valvano once said, “A W is a W and an L is an L, no matter how you explain it.” The U.S. finally got a W on Sunday.

Because of the construct of his team, Darren Clarke was in an almost impossible position, trying to win a Ryder Cup with six effective players. McIlroy even admitted after his loss to Patrick Reed – in as electric a singles match as you’ll ever hope to see – that the weight of the entire weekend may have worn on him a little bit mentally.

That wasn’t excuse-making, that was fact. On the other hand, all 12 Americans scored at least one point and Reed and Brandt Snedeker were nothing short of amazing.

But this was Mickelson’s win, his finest hour. You can point to all the other factors that led to the American players pouring champagne into each other’s mouths on Sunday, but when all is said and done, this win – perhaps more than any other in his Hall of Fame career – is the one he will cherish most.

He’s entitled.

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Stricker leads in hometown event; Daly three back

By Associated PressJune 22, 2018, 10:11 pm

MADISON, Wis. – Steve Stricker made himself at home at the top of the leaderboard on a rainy and breezy Friday at the American Family Insurance Championship.

The hometown star and tournament host shot an 8-under 64 at University Ridge to take a one-stroke lead over Brad Bryant in the PGA Tour Champions event. Because of the wet conditions, the players were allowed to lift, clean and place their golf balls in the fairways.

John Daly, Colin Montgomerie and Steve Flesch shot 67. Daly returned from a knee injury that sidelined him for three events.

Splitting time between the PGA Tour and the 50-and-over circuit, the 51-year-old Stricker had his 30th consecutive Champions round under par, the fourth-longest streak in tour history.

Stricker won in Arizona and Mississippi in consecutive starts in May for his first senior victories. The 12-time PGA Tour winner played the big tour the last two weeks, tying for 18th in Memphis and tying for 20th in the U.S. Open.

Fellow Madison player Jerry Kelly and Illinois coach Mike Small, Stricker's teammate with the Illini, were at 68 with Bernhard Langer, Scott Verplank, Jeff Sluman, Glen Day, Billy Mayfair, Doug Garwood, Jerry Smith and Rocco Mediate. Defending champion Fred Couples had a 69.

Stricker played alongside Vijay Singh and Davis Love III. Singh shot 81, and Love 72.

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Aphibarnrat keeps promise to M. Jutanugarn

By Randall MellJune 22, 2018, 9:25 pm

Moriya Jutanugarn was inspired by a special fan Friday who kept a promise to her.

She will be looking to use that boost to make this a memorable new chapter in the Jutanugarn “Sisters Act” story.

Three weeks after Ariya won the U.S. Women’s Open for her second victory in 2018, Mo is in early position in Rogers, Ark., to join her sister as the tour’s only two-time winners this year.

Mo put up a 7-under-par 64 to get into early contention at the Walmart NW Arkansas Championship. She was tied for the lead among the morning wave with Aditi Ashok, who is looking to inspire the entire nation of India by winning a first LPGA title for her homeland. Lizette Salas and Mirim Lee also shot 64s in the early wave.

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Moriya got in contention with PGA Tour pro Kiradech Aphibarnrat in the gallery following her. A fellow Thai, Aphibarnrat promised Mo he would come watch her if she won an LPGA title. She broke through for her first victory in April at the Hugel-JTBC LA Open, and Aphribarnrat lived up to his promise showing up this week.

“He's like my brother, and it’s very nice to see him,” Moriya said. “Really happy for him, as well, because he is having a very good year this year.”

At the Masters, Ariya caddied for Aphibarnrat during the Par 3 Contest.

Aphibarnrat said he is a big fan of the Thai sisters and also planned to watch Ariya in the afternoon.

“They inspire me,” Aphibarnrat told LPGA media official Christina Lance after the round.

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Two-time champ Bubba fires 63 at Travelers

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 7:20 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Amid a resurgent season that has already included a pair of wins, it only makes sense that Bubba Watson is back in contention at the Travelers Championship.

TPC River Highlands has been one of Watson’s favorite haunts over the years; it’s a layout where the southpaw’s creative approach is often rewarded. This is where he burst into tears after earning his first PGA Tour victory in 2010, and this is where he beat Paul Casey in a playoff to again lift the trophy in 2015.

He’ll once again have a late weekend tee time after firing a 7-under 63 during the second round, tying the low score of the week and moving to within three shots of Brian Harman’s 10-under total.

“Little bit less wind, little more confidence on the ball-striking, and I made putts,” Watson said. “The key is making putts. When you start making putts, that’s where you’re going to score a decent number.”

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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Watson was well down the standings after opening with an even-par 70, a round that included three bogeys in a four-hole stretch on the back nine to negate progress he had made earlier in the day. But he ran into no such struggles the second time around, adding six birdies to an eagle on the par-5 13th hole when he hit his approach shot from 229 yards to within 18 inches of the hole.

The difference, according to Watson, was between the ears.

“Yesterday I was just thinking about some negative stuff instead of focusing on my target and focusing on the shot at hand,” Watson said. “I was focusing on hitting to the bunker, or focusing on, ‘Water is over here, so hit it over here.’ Just things like that, just things that you can’t do around the golf course.”

Watson was also a runner-up in 2012 here in addition to his two wins, and he has racked up nearly $3.5 million in earnings in 11 prior appearances. Once again thinking the right thoughts on one of his favorite tracks, he’s potentially 36 holes away from his third win since February.

“Obviously around here I feel pretty comfortable,” Watson said. “I can hit some shots around here, and I’ve made it work throughout some of the years.”

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Only putting is holding McIlroy back

By Will GrayJune 22, 2018, 6:48 pm

CROMWELL, Conn. – Through two rounds of the Travelers Championship, the tee shots are towering and the approaches are accurate for Rory McIlroy. Now he just needs the putter to heat up.

McIlroy started to show signs of life during the second round last week at Shinnecock Hills before missing the cut, and after putting in some extra work honing his swing over the weekend, his tee-to-green game is worth boasting about at the halfway point at TPC River Highlands.

McIlroy has missed only five greens in regulation through two rounds, barely breaking a sweat en route to rounds of 64 and 69 that left him at 7 under. He’s within striking distance heading into the weekend, three shots behind Brian Harman, but might be topping the standings with a more cooperative putter.

Full-field scores from the Travelers Championship

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“I felt like I left a few out there,” McIlroy said. “I felt like I had a lot of good putts that just didn’t go in. I started them on line, did everything I needed to do, and it’s just one of those days where they were sliding by the edges.”

McIlroy took 32 putts to complete his second round, including a three-putt on No. 7 for his only bogey of the day and another three-putt on No. 13 that turned an eagle opportunity into a par. Already with a win under his belt this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational when he knocked in putts from all directions during a final-round 64, McIlroy feels confident that he might be only a few rolls away from having another shot to contend in his second career trip to the Hartford-area stop.

“I think if I can put the ball in the fairway and hit my irons as good as I have been over the first couple of days, I’ll give myself a lot of chances for birdies,” McIlroy said. “It’s just about converting them and taking the opportunities when they present themselves.”