Phil Mickelson confident USA now singing from same hymn sheet

Pairing with Tiger Woods was an example of poor preparation in past

 Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker  and Rickie Fowler walk together durng practice for the Ryder Cup at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Photograph:  Tannen Maury/EPA

Phil Mickelson, Jimmy Walker and Rickie Fowler walk together durng practice for the Ryder Cup at the Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minnesota. Photograph: Tannen Maury/EPA

 

As Phil Mickelson crossed the footbridge to the practice driving range, music blasted out from some unseen source. It was an odd choice – Wham!’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go . But Lefty was wide awake and fully in tune with the roars of “U-S-A” from those fans gathered by the range. The thumbs-up salute he gave them was accompanied by his trademark grin.

Mickelson has more to prove than any other player on the United States team this week.

It was his cut-to-the-chase criticism of Tom Watson’s captaincy at Gleneagles two years ago that led to the establishment of a task force which became a committee to transform their fortunes in the contest.

He wasn’t one for burying his head in the sand, not one to walk quietly away. So he said what he thought and now it’s time to face the music.

Can he deliver? Yet again, he’s here on merit, an 11th straight appearance – a record for an American – and all earned through qualifying by right. He’s never needed a ‘wild card’ pick. “I’m very proud of the streak, it’s been something special,” Mickelson said.

Sense of unity

There’s a difference this time, though. More a sense of unity in the US ranks.

“In my 20 years, it’s the first time we are actually involved in the decision-making process; and the decisions we are accountable for every year, we now have involvement in those decisions and that gives us a whole platform to work forward. This is the week where all the past captains, past vice-captains, PGA of America officials, caddies, have had involvement in the decision-making process.”

In many ways, the new USA planning process is mimicking the model used so successfully by Europe. It’s not rocket science, for sure. And, yet, Mickelson used an example of his ill-fated pairing with Tiger Woods at Oakland Hills in 2004 to demonstrate the part that planning, or the lack of it, plays and especially the role of the team captain in that process.

As Mickelson put it yesterday: “It all starts with the captain. That’s the guy that has to bring together 12 strong individuals and bring out their best and allow them a platform to play their best. That’s the whole foundation of the team . . . you play how you prepare. In a Ryder Cup, you have to prepare properly for the event.”

As he was talking, a trigger went off. Something jarred in his head, and suddenly Mickelson was bringing us back to the 2004 Ryder Cup as an example of how not to do it.

It was the time when he was thrown together with Woods. The world number one playing with the world number two. What could go wrong? A lot, as it happened. They played terribly and the defining image of that match was the cold stare that Woods offered as Mickelson drove out-of-bounds.

Real culprit

In Mickelson’s eyes, though, the real culprit was the captain Hal Sutton who informed them just two days beforehand that they would be playing together.

“That gave us no time to work together and prepare. He found out the year before when we played at the Presidents Cup in 2003 that the golf ball I was playing was not going to work for him. He [Woods] plays with a very high-spin ball and I play a very low-spin ball and we had to come up in two days with a solution.”

What did he do? Mickelson grabbed a couple of dozen of Woods’s balls and isolated himself on the other course at Oakland Hills, away from prying eyes, to work with the Nike ball rather than his Callaway.

“It forced me to stop my preparation for the tournament, to stop chipping and stop putting and stop sharpening my game and stop learning the golf course, in an effort to crash-course and learn a whole different golf ball that we were going to be playing.

“And in the history of my career, I have never ball-tested two days prior to a Major. I’ve never done it. It doesn’t allow me to play my best. What allows me to play my best is to learn the course, sharpen my touch on the greens, sharpen my chipping out of the rough and ball striking and so forth.

“Instead, I’m taking four or five hours and I’m out trying to learn another ball to allow us to play our best. Had we known a month in advance, we might have been able to make it work. I think we probably would have made it work. But we didn’t know until two days’ prior.”

In listening to Mickelson, there was some irony. For one, he never mentioned that was also the week he switched manufacturers to use Callaway clubs. For another, he was delving back into the past, the very thing that the task force – and captain Davis Love III – has sought to make them forget.

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