SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – No American has spanned the Ryder Cup spectrum quite as extensively as Phil Mickelson. He’s savored wins and endured losses, and four years ago it was Mickelson who lit the flame that overhauled the entire thought process for the U.S. side.
And so it was that with the tide rising against them and any lingering hopes of a comeback beginning to fade, the Americans turned to their veteran leader for inspiration.
Except this time, his clubs were nowhere to be found.
The man at the center of the Hazeltine revival was reduced to a good luck charm Saturday, grinning as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas playfully rubbed his belly as their fourball match hung in the balance. It could turn out to be the most meaningful contribution of the week for Mickelson, whose trip to France is on the verge of being remembered as an unmitigated disaster.
This was supposed to be the week the road drought ended for Mickelson, who has flown to Europe with five other Ryder Cup teams and come up empty every time. This was the team with unquestioned strength from the first man to the 12th, including a quartet of captain’s picks that were largely viewed as no-brainers.
That group included Mickelson, who at age 48 was coming off a resurgent season. But seemingly since the team left its dinner at the Palace of Versailles, nothing has gone right – either in Mickelson’s performance or Jim Furyk’s management of his most seasoned asset.
You didn’t have to be a rocket scientist, let alone Bryson DeChambeau, to realize that Le Golf National would be an especially difficult test for Mickelson, who was ranked ahead of exactly one player out of 193 this past season in fairways hit. Accuracy has never been a strength, but this year was errant even by Mickelson’s standards and he finished dead last at last week’s 30-man Tour Championship.
But rather than put him out in the more forgiving fourball format, Furyk opted to sit him for the opening session Friday. And, to be fair, that decision seemed to pay off for a brief instant when the U.S. took three of four early points.
But it left Mickelson to either play without a safety net in foursomes, or sit the opening day entirely – two altogether unappealing options. Furyk chose the former, then sat back in horror as Mickelson and DeChambeau lost seven of nine holes out of the gates. It was a performance so uninspiring that few were surprised when he opted to shelve his veteran for both sessions on Saturday.
When Furyk added Mickelson on Sept. 4, he didn’t envision playing him for only two out of a possible five matches. No captain would ever add a pick with the stated goal of playing close to the minimum number of matches. Yet here we are.
“I’d be disappointed if he said he thought he was going to play two (sessions),” Furyk said. “I know Phil. He wants to be out there just like everyone else. That’s part of being a team, and part of this event. We have 12 amazing players, and they can’t all play every match. And you accept what you get.”
Mickelson could very well turn in a respectable performance in that singles match against undefeated Francesco Molinari, and the Americans retain a glimmer of hope that, at 10-6 down, they can still storm back against a tidal wave of blue. But in all likelihood, his all-too-brief appearance will be remembered for the iron he hit into the water off the tee of the par-5 third hole Friday afternoon, a shocking mix of timid strategy and poor execution that foreshadowed a decisive loss.
There have been plenty of Ryder Cup pitfalls for Mickelson here in Europe, from an 0-4-1 debacle at The K Club in 2006, to a trio of losses at Celtic Manor in 2010, to the media center mutiny of four years ago. But despite all the lumps he has taken on this side of the Atlantic, none will rival this week’s combination of high expectations, poor results and a well-deserved lack of playing time.
Minutes after his belly rubs helped get Spieth and Thomas over the finish line, Mickelson was back on the first tee to cheer on the afternoon pairings that entered the arena in his stead. It was an admirable and understandable bit of sportsmanship for a player whose leadership in the team room is unquestioned and whose place as a future captain is all-but certain.
But after the mammoth grandstand behind the first tee emptied, and with crescendos for the shots from other players reverberating around him, Mickelson wandered over to the driving range and began hitting balls in front of a handful of spectators.
Still with a match to play, he surely saw it as an opportunity to steady the ship in the hopes that his final point might yet matter. But there was no mistaking the peculiar sight of a player who has been at the center of the action for the U.S. since the mid-‘90s suddenly shuffled off to the side stage for a range session while the tournament’s critical juncture went on without him.
Mickelson came to France brimming with optimism, confident that the strides made at Hazeltine would propel a stacked roster to further glory. He spoke of a measured game plan, one that would help him finally taste team victory on European soil after two decades of failure.
Outside of discovering his newfound effectiveness as a cheerleader and barring a historic turnaround, it’s hard to see how his week could have gone much worse.