Mickelson and Bradley, head over heels and fired up, set tone for U.S. team

Saturday September 29th, 2012
Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley led the U.S. with an inspired showing on Friday.
Fred Vuich/SI

MEDINAH, Ill. -- If you think Phil Mickelson and Keegan Bradley have good chemistry on the golf course, you should have seen them at lunch on Friday after their foursomes victory over Europe's best team, Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, who had been a combined 14-0-1 in the format.

"They're infatuated with each other," says Bradley's very understanding girlfriend, Jillian Stacey. "They couldn't stop talking about each other. It was like, 'Oh that shot you hit was so great.' 'No, that putt of yours was even better.' 'But I couldn't have done it without your amazing read.' Every now and then they would stare into each other's eyes like they were a long-lost love. At some point Amy [Mickelson] was like, 'It's a good thing we're here, or they might start talking about getting married.'"

Mickelson and Bradley have forged their chemistry during frequent practice round battles on Tour, during which trash-talking, and a few crisp hundred dollar bills, are routinely exchanged. They are similar type-A personalities, but Bradley brings an East Coast edge that is balanced by Mickelson's Southern California cool. For much of this summer Mickelson suffered through a mysterious malaise, but on day one of the Ryder Cup he was clearly energized by his wide-eyed, twitchy, fist-pumping playing partner. "I don't think I've ever seen Phil this excited on a golf course," his mother, Mary, said.

"I felt young, and it felt great," said Mickelson, a 42-year-old Hall of Famer. "Had energy all day, just felt terrific. I'd say to him, 'Hey, I need a little pep talk,' and he'd just give me something that would get me boosted right up, and I'd end up hitting a good shot."

Bradley, a 26-year-old Ryder Cup rookie, felt equally at ease with his wingman, who, it must be said, has more losses than any other American Ryder Cupper. Of their alternate-shot victory, Bradley said: "I felt so freed up because I knew wherever I hit it, Phil could hit an amazing shot to save the hole for us. So I just freewheeled, which isn't necessarily easy to do in that format."

Amy Mickelson shared that confidence. "At one point Jillian said, 'Oh, I'm sorry, Phil's in the trees.' I said, 'He's used to it, he'll be fine.'"

The match versus Garcia and Donald was all square through 11 holes until the Americans won four straight to close out a 4-and-3 victory. Said Mickelson of Bradley, "The way he drives the golf ball off the tee, it just wears down your opponent, watching him hit the ball so long and straight. And the way he putts, it is just off the charts."

Mickelson's putting has been iffy going back to last year, when he started tinkering with a belly putter at Bradley's suggestion. Phil went to a claw grip during the FedEx Cup playoffs, and top-5 finishes at the Deutsche Bank and BMW gave him some much-needed belief in his blade. His wife insists Mickelson's mopey play earlier in the year had nothing to do with his psoriatic arthritis and was more about his balky putter.

"When he's not putting well, he can get discouraged, like a lot guys," says Amy. "That enthusiasm you're seeing has a lot to do with him feeling confident in his putting. Simple as that."

After Phil and Keegan's dewey-eyed lunch, they took on the potent team of Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell in fourballs. The surging Yanks promptly won the first three holes, giving them seven in a row spread across two matches. The Ulstermen were strangely flat after that and never got closer than 2-down. That was the score as they played the par-3 17th. With Bradley bunkered, Mickelson covered the flag with a 7-iron that his grateful playing partner called, with typical understatement, "the best shot I've ever seen in my life."

Mickelson's walk-off birdie ended the match 2 and 1. It was the first time in his Ryder career -- nine Cups and counting -- that he has won two matches on the same day. With Tiger Woods suffering two losses, it is clear that this has become Mickelson's team. He connects with his teammates in a way that the brooding Woods simply can't. Mickelson has enjoyed enough personal triumph in his career; coming through for his boys -- and especially his new protégé Keegan -- left him positively giddy.

"This is one of the most emotional days playing a Ryder Cup that we'll ever have," Mickelson said. "This has been one of the biggest highs that we've had."

Better yet, he and Bradley get to do it all over again on Saturday.

 

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