Ryder Cup Fallout and Your Questions Answered in the Van Cynical Mailbag

Tuesday September 30th, 2014
Even if he was right, Phil Mickelson should have confined his criticism of Tom Watson to the locker room, writes Gary Van Sickle.
Robert Beck/Sports Illustrated

GLASGOW, Scotland -- The Ryder Cup turmoil continues.

When I jokingly coined the latest U.S. Ryder Cup loss “The Smackdown in Scotland,” I didn’t realize it was going to be a double entendre. Phil Mickelson effectively trashed Tom Watson’s captaincy with comments he made during the post-tournament press room. Here’s some of the fallout…

From The Guardian, Andy Bull: Well, no one can accuse Phil Mickelson of knifing Tom Watson in the back. He delivered his stiletto verdict on Watson’s captaincy from front on and in full earshot, while the two of them were sitting at the top table in the end-of-tournament press conference. And, being the well-mannered man he is, he did it with a grin, and a charming but utterly insincere insistence that he “really couldn’t understand” why anyone would think he was attacking Watson’s leadership.

From The Telegraph, by Paul Hayward, beneath the headline, “Phil Mickelson’s outburst against Tom Watson shows the difference between the winning and losing teams. The Europeans have developed a tight bond… that the Americans can only dream about”: America’s golfers may not “litigate” but they know how to agitate. Phil Mickelson’s takedown of Tom Watson’s leadership here was surely the most public denunciation of a captain by a player in Ryder Cup history. Should it be allowed to overshadow Europe’s latest triumph? No, but it was part of the same win-lose drama. Mickelson’s disloyalty… was symbolic of the difference between the protagonists.

Another headline in the Telegraph above a story written by Oliver Brown: “Phil Mickelson flies home alone from Gleneagles after Ryder Cup tirade at USA captain Tom Watson; American returns to home in his £40m Gulfstream jet after withering criticism of his Ryder Cup captain.”

Two former Ryder Cup captains chimed in with criticism, also.

“Should we go into this one hour after we’ve been defeated? The answer is a flat no,” former European captain Colin Montgomerie said on Golf Channel. “You support your captain under all circumstances. In public, you respect and honor your captain.”

Nick Faldo, who lost as captain in 2008, said. “That should have been a private conversation. Phil certainly doesn’t respect Tom Watson. He threw his captain right under the bus.”

In addition, Montgomerie was surprised to learn that Mickelson didn’t travel with his teammates on the flight across the Atlantic to Scotland. Mickelson reportedly didn’t fly home with them, either. "I have a big problem with that," Montgomerie said. "The team should fly as 12. We have to start out as we want to finish, as a team."

Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said on the air, "That was as close to a one-man mutiny as I ever seen… If you are looking for a reason why the United States continues to lose, you just saw it, you saw it in one man. I think that's a moment that Phil would like to have back.”

Mickelson’s comments about Watson’s captaincy were in response to a question in the press conference but Mickelson had already broached the topic before that in post-round comment to Steve Sands of Golf Channel/NBC. Sands asked what formula the Europeans have that the Americans don’t.

“We had a great formula in ’08 and I don’t know why we strayed from it,” Mickelson told Sands. “I don’t know why we don’t ever try going back to it. What Zinger did was a really good format and maybe we ought to relive something like that.”

There was nothing wrong with Phil’s answer there but when he was asked to go into detail about the differences at the full press conference, that’s where he crossed the line. In addition, he mocked Watson’s comments about how the three American rookies accounted for eight and a half points.

“Now I’m not a mathematician, had they give us eight and a half points, we would have won the Ryder Cup,” Mickelson said. “But the three and a half points they did give us was exceptional and they kept us in it and they are just brilliant players.”

Yes, as individuals, Jordan Spieth, Patrick Reed and Jimmy Walker scored a combined eight-and-a-half points. In the team’s actual total, as Mickelson pointed out, it was only three-and-a-half. Everyone in the room knew what Watson meant when he said it. There was no need to correct it or make fun of it even in a joking manner but after his previous scathing comments, there were nothing joking about Mickelson’s delivery. He was out to show up Watson.

One more thing before we dive into the Van Cynical Mailbag. There are two issues here. One, which my Sunday night column was about, was whether Mickelson should have blasted Watson publicly in the team’s post-match press conference. My answer was no.

Two, did Watson do a poor job captaining and was Phil’s criticism valid? Well, the rest of us aren’t in the team room and can only go by what we’re told. The funny part about Phil’s monologue is that parts of it were taken almost word-for-word from my Ryder Cup preview story in which I wondered why the U.S. had strayed from the formula created by the only American captain who’s won a Ryder Cup in this century, Paul Azinger, and how Watson had strayed even more, giving back one of the four wild-card picks Azinger had insisted on back in 2008.

I agree with Mickelson that Azinger’s formula is a good one and should be revived. I agree that Watson made four key mistakes. We don’t need to go over those again, do we? Good. On to the Mailbag:

Van Cynical, Was it ever a thought to bring Tiger in to be a vice captain? Would rules of competition allow that? Better yet, would the egos? -- Derek Wathke via Twitter

Tiger could legally be vice captain, yes. Sergio Garcia did so last time for the Euros. But are you serious? Tiger and Watson don’t get along. Watson publicly scolded Tiger for his behavior and his scandal and Tiger didn’t appreciate it. They had icy relations during the whole selection period before Tiger finally said he was too injured to play and took himself out. Zero chance of him being involved with Tom’s team. And if he was, yeah, Phil would’ve loved that, too.

Van Sickle, Heaven forbid someone was open and honest. I could feel the lack of unity and team spirit. Those come from a leader. -- Sandy Mabry via Twitter

You’re right, Sandy. A leader can lead but if he can’t get all of his men to follow, that’s a problem.

Sickle, So it’s OK to explain ’08 as a captaincy thing but not when it’s dear old Tom? McGinley had him from day one. Worth something. -- Ben Coley via Twitter

Faldo had the clearly better team in ’08. Watson had the clearly inferior team this time, since he was missing Tiger, Dustin Johnson and Jason Dufner. So that’s one difference. And after a brilliant Saturday morning rally, the U.S. was only one point down going into foursomes. It was still a game. So I’m not sure you can say McGinley had him from day one. Did Paul out-captain Tom? Yes.

Vans, Hard to argue that (your column) but our players do well in bestball and singles. The alternate shot continues to kill us. -- Tim Keith via Twitter

That’s just a symptom, TK, not the cause. Not so fast on your assumptions, however. The U.S. won only three singles matches at Medinah. Yes, the U.S. was 0-6-2 in foursomes this time. In the previous two Ryder Cups the U.S. lost, it was 8-7-1 in foursomes, 7-7-2 in fourballs and 9-12-3 in singles. From ’08 through this year, the U.S. record by category is 20-20-8 in singles, 11-15-6 in foursomes, 14-11-7 in fourballs.

Van Sickle, The Bubba-Rickie photo was in very poor taste. Just this fan’s perspective. -- Shelley Ashworth Lee via Twitter

I’ll be sure to mention that to Hunter Mahan, who took the photo and made it public by Tweeting it.

Van Cynical, So Phil pretty much has to win the Ryder Cup when/if he gets to be captain, right? -- Brian Bailey via Twitter

I don’t think so, Bail-jumper. Phil may have just talked himself out of being asked to be captain with his team-undermining comments.

Vans, We were missing a few players that could’ve scored points but they (we) have to get better. -- Bob Estes via Twitter

A healthy Tiger, Dustin and Duf would’ve helped. Dufnering may even have made a comeback as an Internet fad if he’d been there. But yes, get better. As Monty noted on the air, “If you had 12 Patrick Reeds, you certainly wouldn’t be down 10-6, I can assure you.”

Cynical, Since May 1, Euro team members had ten wins on Euro/U.S. tours, U.S. had one. -- Lionel Mandrake via Twitter

Thanks for doing my research. You’re hired. There will be no exchange of money but on your deathbed, you will receive total consciousness. So ya got that goin’ for ya. Which is nice.

Vans, Phil is the second biggest -------canoe in golf. Mr. 16-19-6 should keep his drool-hole shut. -- GolfSpectator via Twitter

So GSpec, I’m sensing that you’re not a Phil fan.

Sickle, Does this Ryder Cup prove captains matter? -- Brian Norman

It’s been proven many times, Sharkey, that captains can matter. Tony Jacklin and Bernard Gallacher were brilliant. Paul Azinger and Dave Stockton. Some good captains get dealt a bad hand or their players just don’t play well. Tom Kite in ’97 did a great job but the Americans were on a funky course that negated their strengths and the opposing captain in Spain was Seve. No European player dared lose that one for him.

Van Cynical, Is it possible the NCAA’s switch to a match-play format to determine its team champion has Ryder Cup benefits down the road? See Reed, Patrick. -- Rick Fisher via Twitter

That’s a possibility, Fishsticks, but so few teams make it to the match-play round that’s a pretty small sampling of golfers, although some of those are definitely tour material. There are a lot of stand-out individuals whose teams never get that far, though. It couldn’t hurt, though.

Sick, Phil is getting criticized but wasn’t Watson wrong to air a private conversation to make himself look like an iron-fisted tough guy? -- Chris Folds via Twitter

You’ve got a point there, C-Folds. I thought Watson mentioned it to show that yes, he considered inserting Phil and yes, he respected Phil’s desire to play. Or maybe he did it to show Phil trying to manipulate things to get his way. However, Watson didn’t openly criticize Phil for campaigning to play. He just explained what happened.

Van Sickle (Re your story on Phil), Worth reading for the last line. -- Duncan Castles via Twitter

A little over the top just to be provocative, admittedly. Hope it made the point.

Vans, Wasn’t Phil taking Ted Bishop and the PGA of America to task as much as Tom Watson? -- Jonathan Krause via Twitter

Very possibly. They’re the ones who gave the keys to the castle to Watson, figuring his old-school way would be a game-changer. Only Phil knows for sure who he was firing at.

Van Cynical, Phil just telling it like it is. Shouldn’t be slated for that. -- Simon Davies via Twitter

I disagree with his timing. His comments undermined the entire team’s integrity and took the spotlight off 11 other deserving players who’d played hard and now will be tarred by the same brush.

Vans, If you guys don’t want honesty, why do you ask the question? -- Coco via Twitter

It is possible to answer a question honestly without dissing your captain and dismissing and overshadowing your teammates’ efforts.

Sickle, If guys give short answers and steer around questions, you rip them. Unlike Watson, who did nothing for you press. -- Mike Althouse via Twitter

When you’re part of a team, you don’t point fingers of blame. Especially if you flew in on your own plane instead of the team charter. Writers grumble, yes, but I don’t recall the last time I read a rip-job on a guy for giving lousy quotes. At least, not in the mainstream media. But yeah, we’d rather have snappy answers than clichés.

Van Cynical, Phil’s comments were too candid for the situation but Watson’s brutal leadership was far more egregious. -- Zmark via Twitter

Mistakes on both sides? Agreed.

Vans, Tom threw Phil under the bus when he told Phil he would not play Saturday. It’s about respect. -- Ben via Twitter

The Ryder Cup is about sending the best four teams out. Saturday afternoon, Watson didn’t think Phil and Bradley were one of the best four teams. Which is why he should’ve sent them out Saturday morning in fourballs, a better format for them.

Tiger or Phil can captain the team two years from now. They won’t qualify on points. -- Steve McQueen via Twitter

Tiger didn’t make it this year due to injuries and Phil made it only because he got points for the 2013 British Open and double points for his runnerup PGA finish. Gutsy call by you that they won’t be playing but future captains? I seriously doubt either of them will ever hold that job.

Vans, Watson totally went against what he said he would do -- pick and play the best players. Kirk, Horschel not on the team. -- Bgolf via Twitter

Horschel’s run came too late and really, after two FedEx Cup wins and his first baby being born two days later, Horschel would’ve been too gassed to tee it up in the Ryder Cup and play well.

Sickle, Was disappointed with Phil’s comments due to predictability of these articles. Gotta walk away from loaded questions. -- Ryan Evans via Twitter

You’ve got that right. But Phil was already loading his ammo with Golf Channel on the topic before he even entered the press room. He had an intent and an agenda. This was all premeditated.

Vans, How can you say Watson didn’t break the code? He buried his guys every day and took zero responsibility. F the code and win. -- Peter Macaluso via Twitter

In his view, the players play and the captains captain. Watson didn’t hit any shots. He didn’t offer criticism but I agree he should’ve said, We’ve got to play better instead of repeating, The players have to play better. That could have been interpreted as criticism.

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