IT WAS a subtle wee dig but boy was it one Phil Mickelson was proud of. Asked if there was any merit in the theory that the Americans lack the camaraderie and closeness of their European counterparts, he grinned widely as he responded.
“Well, not only are we able to play together, we also don’t litigate against each other and that’s a real plus, I felt, heading into this week,” he said. “I couldn’t resist,” he added. “Sorry.” But he was a picture of mischief and self-congratulation.
The jibe was at the expense of world No 1 Rory McIlroy and his team-mate Graeme McDowell, who joined up in the last two Ryder Cups to contribute 2½ points to the European cause. The suggestion was obviously that the once airtight relationship has become strained after McIlroy sued to be released from his contract with Horizon Sports Management, where McDowell is a partner.
The younger player was apparently aggrieved at not being given terms comparable to McDowell’s, while the man who once described their dynamic as that of big brother-wee brother, was purported to be miffed that McIlroy did not attend his wedding, having filed the lawsuit the day before.
Both men have insisted their friendship is intact and dismiss the notion of any residual resentment but the issue was whipped up again earlier this week when it was revealed that McDowell has asked not to be paired with his former brother-in-arms in the fourballs. “He would now be the leader of the two of us and perhaps the dynamic doesn’t work as well,” explained McDowell, insisting that it had nothing to do with the legal issues and explaining they had come out the other end of that problem even better friends than they were before.
“Perhaps I’m the kind of guy that needs that leadership role a little bit, who needs to feel like he is at least on a level with the guy he’s playing with. I’ll be the first to admit it.”
They could still line up together in the foursomes but Mickelson’s words could gnaw at fairly raw nerves and could backfire if they serve to rile rather than ruffle the hosts, as he undoubtedly hoped they might.
Rickie Fowler tried to brush over it, dismissing the comment as Phil being Phil. “That’s why we love him. He’s a lot of fun to be around and we hear a lot of those one-liners in practice rounds. It’s nothing new to me.”
But it will be construed as fighting talk and that could be dangerous for Mickelson who, despite having forged an impressive partnership with Keegan Bradley in Medinah two years ago, winning three out of three on the Friday and Saturday, still lost the singles match against Justin Rose on that decisive final day, and whose Ryder Cup resume remains largely unimpressive.
In his tenth Ryder Cup appearance, 44-year-old Mickelson wants to continue redressing the balance. “I wouldn’t say it as eloquently as you did by calling it a blot,” he bit back at one reporter, who raised his record of 14 wins, 18 losses and six games halved, “but I think that it’s a record that I’d like to improve on. That’s certainly a goal. Although, it doesn’t take much to improve my winning percentage, I’ll say that.”
Revealing he would again be partnered with Bradley, he said the younger man brings out the best in him.
Bradley said: “I’m very optimistic that I can improve on my record. We just match up well.”
Smiling, he added: “I let him talk, I let him decide the decisions. Well, he thinks I’m letting him.”
The 28-year-old dismissed the theory that the competition simply doesn’t matter to the Americans as much as it does to their rivals. “I’m so pumped,” he said. Playing in his second event, he said that the Ryder Cup lives up to the hype.
He first attended the tournament as a youngster in 1999. The Americans won that one, in Brookline, and he watched the final putts from his father’s shoulders before being allowed to charge on to the 18th green to join the celebrations.
“I fell in love with the Ryder Cup that week. The passion that I saw, I had never seen before in golf and that was something that I promised myself I was going to work toward.”
While others in the team are seeking redemption and a way of exorcising the ghosts of recent European wins, it’s the ability and passion of Bradley and Bubba Watson that many see as key. Much has been made of the experience of old boys such as Mickelson and Jim Furyk, but Rickie Fowler, contesting his second Ryder Cup, says the younger men, like himself and Jordan Speith, could yet be the real driving force.
“Leading up to the event, we can look up to Phil and Furyk, guys who have played quite a few Ryder Cups. Once the week is going, there’s a chance that, if the young guys play well, we can help build some momentum and build some confidence for the team. The young guys could fire the team up a bit and carry them through the week.”