Nick Price and Jay Haas, the respective captains of the Presidents Cup teams, have long histories as two of the nicest, most mild-mannered guys in golf.
So there was no reason to expect controversy when they announced their wild-card selections to fill out their lineups Tuesday afternoon.
Price didn’t surprise anyone with his picks—Steve Bowditch of Australia, who ranked 11th on the points list, and Sang-moon Bae of Korea—but Haas did.
Captain Haas chose his son, Bill Haas, who was 11th on the points list and an obvious choice, no controversy there. His second pick is the one everyone will be talking about—Phil Mickelson.
Mickelson had played the last 10 Presidents Cups, but since a runner-up finish at the Masters in April his game has been spotty at best. Mickelson’s selection was a bit of a surprise, especially given his critical and disruptive comments at the Ryder Cup’s closing press conference last year.
“If anyone deserves a pick, it’s Phil Mickelson,” Jay Haas said. “The guys on the team trust him and they were adamant that Phil is the guy. Among the vice captains and the guys on the team, he was an overwhelming pick.”
Mickelson managed only three top-10 finishes this year, the last of which was a tie for third at Memphis in June.
Since then, Mickelson played six events and finished better than 50th twice—20th at the British Open and 18th at the PGA. Mickelson was 50th at the Barclay’s and 64th at the Deutsche Bank Championship the last two weeks, when he posted a combined score of 4-over par.
“Well, I am really excited, this means a lot to me,” Mickelson said by phone in a televised press conference. “I’m so honored to be on this team. My first Ryder Cup was with Jay Haas in 1995, I’m so happy to play for him. To have it come from input from so many players means a lot. I can’t put it into words.”
Who got passed over in favor of Phil? There was J.B. Holmes, 12th on the points list; Charley Hoffman, who finished third at the Deutsche Bank; rising star Brooks Koepka; and Brandt Snedeker, the Pebble Beach winner who was 15th on the points list.
It was a case of Phil’s experience being more important than current form.
“You can go down the list of Phil’s accomplishments,” Haas said. “On the course, he can bring it. You can’t replace the camaraderie and experience that he brings. Unless you’ve been in the team room with him, you can’t understand what having him around means. He is so ultra-confident and positive. Someone mentioned he went 0-for-5 in South Africa. He never changed one time, he never moped or complained. He was positive from the time he got up until the time he finished the week. Phil got tremendous support across the board.
“There were six or seven guys who received a lot of support. This is not a fun part of the job, telling guys they’re not on the team. Brooks had an unbelievable year. He’s going to be an amazing player.”
The first 10 players on the points lists through the Deutsche Bank Championship qualified automatically. Price said in a televised press conference that his second pick had been narrowed to Bae and Australian Matt Jones, who won last year’s Shell Houston Open and famously played a shot off a hospitality tent carpet during the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits.
Jones wilted at that PGA and badly melted down the stretch Monday at the Deutsche Bank. Because the Presidents Cup will be held at Inchon City in South Korea, it was obvious the International team needed a player from Korea. Bae and Danny Lee, who sneaked onto the team in the 10th spot on the points list, could be an all-Korean pairing for Price, which would play well with the gallery.
Some thought Price might go with Ben An, a former U.S. Amateur champion who scored his breakthrough win on the European Tour this summer. An finished 12th on the points list.
Bae, 29, won to start this wraparound season and was involved in a mild controversy earlier this year about serving his mandatory 21-month military service. Bae agreed to do so and was given assurances that he would be allowed to play in the Presidents Cup if he was selected.
So Bae gives Price a crowd favorite—Bae’s mother lives near the host site, the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea. Bae has won Korean tour events at the Nicklaus course in 2013 and 2014, so his local knowledge played a role in his selection.
“I’m a big believer in horses for courses,” Price admitted. “It’s also very important for us to have someone on the team the Korean fans and media can pull for. He’s going to be a credit to our team.”
Bae won the season’s opening event nearly a year ago, the Frys.com Open. He’d been having a quiet stretch—missed cuts at the Canadian Open and Quicken Loans National, followed by 63rd at Bridgestone Invitational and 64th at the PGA Championship. A sixth-place finish at the Barclay’s, the opening round of the FedEx Cup series, probably gave Bae the edge over An and Jones.