He ended the last one slaughtering Tom Watson. Now Phil Mickelson has thrown another of his former captains under the bus heading into this Ryder Cup. Davis Love III, the home captain at Hazeltine, is safe for now and “Lefty” likes him. Or so it seems anyway. The man in big Phil’s firing line this time was Hal Sutton. Remember him? He sent out Mickelson and Tiger Woods in the opening session at Oakland Hills in 2004 and was duly tagged “Captain Cock-up” as their obvious lack of chemistry resulted in two disappointing defeats.
Mickelson highlighted that high-profile episode as he tried to illustrate where the Americans have been going wrong in suffering eight defeats in the last ten Ryder Cups and how he feels they are better prepared for this one, having tried to copy the blueprint that the Europeans have used to such good effect over the past 20 years.
“Twelve years ago, Tiger and I were paired together and we ended up not playing well,” recalled Mickelson of the star duo – the world No 1 and No 2 at the time – losing 2&1 to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington in the fourballs then suffering a one-hole defeat by Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood in the foursomes on the first day in Detriot. “But we were told two days before that we were playing together. And that gave us no time to work together and prepare.
“He [Woods] found out the year before when we played at The Presidents Cup that the golf ball I was playing was not going to work for him. He plays a very high-spin ball and I play a very low-spin ball, and we had to come up with a solution in two days. So I grabbed a couple dozen of his balls and went off to try to learn his golf ball in a four or five-hour session. 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.
“In the whole of my career, I have never ball-tested two days prior to a major. 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 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.
“Now I’m not trying to throw ... to knock anybody here. But had we had time to prepare, I think we would have made it work and could have had some success. That’s an example of the captain putting us in a position to fail and we failed monumentally, absolutely. But to say, well, you just need to play better; that is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare.”
According to Mickelson, Watson didn’t involve the players in the decision-making process in Perthshire and his remarks were directly responsible for the Americans then setting up a “task force” that has involved former captains, players and PGA of America officials to try to ensure a brighter future lies ahead for Team USA in the biennial encounter.
“I think that we are all very excited to be here this week,” insisted Mickelson. “We have a very different feel and, although it has not been at maybe this event, we’ve a lot of success in the Presidents Cups, working together as a unit and bringing out some of our best golf. When players are put in a position to succeed, more often than not they tend to succeed and when they are put in positions to fail, most of the time they tend to fail.
“This is a year where we feel as though captain Love has been putting us in a position to succeed. He’s taken input from all parties. He’s making decisions that have allowed us to prepare our best and play our best, and I believe that we will play our best. We are playing a very strong European team and I don’t know what that means results-wise, but our best golf will come out this week and that’s our goal.”
Both Mickelson and Henrik Stenson certainly produced their best golf as they fought out an epic duel in the Open Championship at Troon in July. Stenson, who came out on top on the Ayrshire coast to claim the Claret Jug, has been nursing a knee injury coming into his fourth Ryder Cup appearance, but the Swede is ready to play in all five sessions if Clarke needs him to.
“I’d say ‘yes’ at this stage,” he replied to being asked about that possibility. “Nothing is for certain, but, as of now, I feel like I’m up for a lot of golf unless the knee tells me otherwise.”
Having won all three matches they played together at Gleneagles, it seems likely that Stenson and Justin Rose will be paired together again, possibly leading the way once more for Europe tomorrow morning, as they did for Paul McGinley’s team two years ago. “We’re still in the stages where we’re tweaking pairings and thinking about strategy,” said Olympic champion Rose. “But, if that’s the way it plays out again, then it would be a huge honour for us to have the responsibility we had at Gleneagles.”