Ryder Cup 2014: Mickelson right to blast Watson

Mickelson's icy blast is an example for mealy-mouthed sportsmen to follow. Picture: Getty
Mickelson's icy blast is an example for mealy-mouthed sportsmen to follow. Picture: Getty
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THE first two days of the Ryder Cup I wasn’t feeling it. Golf was the new football, we were told, with terrace-style fervour and a real team edge. Not from the Gleneagles fairways I was tramping, it wasn’t.

Then on the final day I wandered into the bearpit at the first tee where the macho types hang out – the ones who are only interested in brutal driving power. They tried to unnerve the Americans. They made fun of them, with Rickie Fowler having his name screeched in the style of an EastEnders harridan. Each and every player was given the same order before being allowed to play: “Dance, boy, dance.” It was undoubtedly impressive.

Later on, what went on in the interview room when America’s captain, Tom Watson, was monstered by his most senior player, Phil Mickelson, made the events at the first tee seem like, well, golf. The collective gasps threatened to suck the air right out of the room. No-one had seen or heard anything like it before.

Here was golf going further than football – way further. In football we know we’re never going to get one guy slagging off another, just out of punching range. Footballers, who are involved in a contact sport, will do anything to avoid confrontation off the pitch. They’ll talk round an issue, cover it in media-trained, anodyne gloop, stress how they’d never criticise another professional – at least until their autobiography comes out in time for Christmas. Golfers, on the other hand, despite being bound up in rules and etiquette, just go for the jugular with a sharpened four-iron – or at least Mickelson does.

During the final day’s play I’d followed his match and liked his style – such swagger in a sport with no shortage of automatons is welcome. But immediately after that truly electric closing press conference he was being dubbed a low-down dirty rat.

Remember the scene in the movie comedy Airplane! where a dozen journalists sprint to file copy and hit their payphones with such force that the entire row of booths topples over? This was what the Media Tent was like seconds after Lefty-gate erupted. Every Ryder Cup utterance is printed out for the hacks’ benefit. Transcriptions of the almighty stooshie instantly became the competition’s most-prized souvenir.

Was Mickelson right to do what he did? I’d have to say yes. Watson’s captaincy had been a subject of hot debate all tournament long. Did we really want America to board the plane – or in Big Phil’s case, a different aircraft – for the journey home without stepping out from behind the choreographed displays of bear-hugging and fist-pumping to tell us what they really thought went wrong in the glen?

There’s an argument which suggests Mickelson wasn’t entirely wrong – the US didn’t have a great game plan, he said, having abandoned the “pod” system of 2008’s winning captain Paul Azinger where there was constant dialogue with the players – but that he chose the wrong moment to air his views. Better to wait until he got home, this argument continued. But why should the US press have first go at it? The failure happened here, the inquest should at least begin here. The Ryder Cup, by its very nature, is brimful of schmaltz, mutual admiration and politeness. Come tea-time on Sunday some of us were ready for a bold fellow to let rip.

They don’t come much bolder than Mickelson. He chose to eulogise an American triumph – the only one in the last seven – which featured more than a few jibes from a captain (Azinger) intended to get under the skin of the Europeans and the attempt by Anthony Kim to make golf a contact sport with his barging of Ian Poulter. Mickelson likes the game to be brash and provocative and he’s popular in Scotland for bringing colour and charisma to the fairways.

Watson is popular, too. There’s probably no place beyond his native Kansas that was more saddened by the sight of this great champion of three Opens on Scottish soil appearing so forlorn, tetchy and beaten. He and Mickelson are men of different generations with different personalities and when it came down to it the big barney was, as Watson suggested, simply a debate about different styles of management, of captaincy.

Some might wonder why multi-millionaire American golfers, or any golfers who are required to form a team, should need a captain’s direction to fire the ball at the hole, something they do anyway. Maybe America should go without a skipper next time. There’s no point on calling on anyone from Watson’s generation: they’re too old. And maybe as players, given all their failures and the emergence of the young bucks, Mickelson’s generation are past it, too.

Here’s the plan for 2016: America goes captainless and they play Britain, who may not need the rest of Europe’s help any more.