Mickelson embraces team leader role on American squad
MEDINAH, Ill. -- The Dynamic Duo has been reunited at the Ryder Cup this week.
Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson.
Relax. They’re only doing a duet on the Ping-Pong table in the Americans’ team room, not in the Ryder Cup pairings. At least, as far as we know.
But as table-tennis teammates, they are definitely an item. And merely stupendous. According to Phil.
“We’ve not had much success together on the course but I will say that as partners on the pong table, he and I are delivering,” Mickelson said with his trademark grin. “We are serving it up and there are not many guys who can match us on the pong table. We didn’t play well together in ’04 on the course, but put us together on that table and we’re rocking it.”
This is the kind of thing that makes Mickelson a de facto team leader. He likes to have fun. He likes to compete -- at anything. Jump shooting, chipping, Jenga -- you name it. Matt Kuchar is the unchallenged No. 1 table-tennis player on the American squad, but guess who keeps improving his game every year? Phil. You know he wants to take down Kuchar someday -- he just hates losing. It would be interesting to know how hard Phil is working on his pong backhand. Probably pretty hard.
“It’s clear that Kooch is the one to beat,” said team captain Davis Love. “The other guys compare how many points they won off him -- I got 12, I got 14. They can’t beat him. Koosh isn’t even showing them everything he’s got, either. I think he’s being a little nice. But Phil improves every year.”
It was just yesterday, it seems, that Phil was a fresh-faced amateur trying on the conquistador helmet for winning the Tucson Open as an amateur, and then wearing an upturned collar with those unique, intentionally faded (and kind of ugly) golf shirts. Somehow, yesterday turned into two decades and time keeps accelerating. Mickelson is in his 40s, he’s already in the World Golf Hall of Fame, he’s battling arthritis, and he has now appeared in more Ryder Cups (nine) than any other American golfer. That’s something.
He has evolved from a fun-loving young superstar into a fun-loving older superstar and, from all accounts, a team leader. He’s been a mentor for Keegan Bradley, and also happens to be part-owner of the agency that provides management for Bradley. Ryder Cup week, Phil is there to answer all questions. Just ask. It seems as if he’s having more fun than ever, if that’s possible.
“I just love this event,” he gushed Wednesday when he met with writers. “This is my 18th team event in a row, counting the Presidents Cup, and I realize over time how much I look forward to these events, how much I love the Ryder Cup, how much I love being part of the team and how much I want to play.”
His Ryder Cup record is a not-so-stellar 11-17-6. Part of that may have been timing. Like his new pal Tiger, Mickelson geared his game for the majors. So when the last putt dropped at the PGA Championship in August, that was effectively the end of the golf season for them. The Bridgestone Invitational used to be played the following week at Firestone, so both players’ games were still sharp for that event and the results showed it. Phil won it in ’96 when it was the NEC World Series of Golf, and Tiger has won it multiple times. Then, in late August, they pretty much took a break and put their clubs down. By the time the Ryder Cup rolled around a month later, it was a challenge to get their games back to the same sharp peak they’d been at earlier.
In other words, don’t read too much into their Ryder Cup marks. You haven’t seen two players who like losing less than Phil and Tiger.
“Phil is a lot like Tiger, they both came onto these teams trying to win a whole bunch of points,” said Love. “They thought that was what they were supposed to do. Now they just want to win the Cup. I just had a discussion out there with Phil and Tiger and Strick and they’re all like, 'Tell us what you want and we’ll do it.'
"That’s the difference with a veteran," Love continued. "Phil gets it. He knows what to say at the right time. He knows when to be serious and when to give his strategy theories and he knows when to make a joke and have fun. He and Brandt [Snedeker] have been going back and forth all week and they’re having a great time.”
Mickelson is more of a pragmatist now than years past. He was asked about his growing role as a mentor to the team’s four Ryder Cup rookies and he expressed the importance of what the rookies bring to this team, instead.
“A lot of the guys who have been on this team -- Furyk, Stricker, Tiger -- we’ve only won two Ryder Cups,” Mickelson said. “We need the energy and excitement the rookies provide as much as they need a little bit of our guidance for all of us to play our best golf.
“We need that positive outlook and that desire to win, because our highlights are from ’99 and ‘08 and we want to create another memory, another special week," he said. "I’m going to be playing a lot with Keegan Bradley. I mean, it’s no secret. It’s fun because this is his first team event and he is so excited. You feed off the exuberance and energy that he brings.”
If Mickelson was ever among the handful of PGA Tour players in the mid-'90s who were a little less enthused about the Ryder Cup (and pushed for the PGA of America to at least start donating money to their favorite charities, as eventually happened), those feelings aren’t evident now. Mickelson is in the twilight of his career and he knows he shouldn’t take any success for granted. The Ryder Cup is now a priority for him, and he likes that the FedEx Cup schedule means his game will be as sharp as he can get it coming to Medinah.
“As my career has progressed, I realize that these are some of the most special weeks throughout a career,” Mickelson said. “They’re something that careers are defined by and they’re also the weeks that relationships form that last a lifetime. I love being on this team. It’s really fun.”
The golf is fun. So is the table tennis. But Phil’s description of the prowess he and Tiger have shown as a duo may be every so slightly exaggerated.
“It’s somewhat accurate,” Steve Stricker said with a laugh when told that Phil said and Tiger are rocking the table-tennis court. “Yeah, they haven’t gotten beat yet but I think they’ve played only two or three matches. Phil and his imagination get a little out there. He likes to think that he’s -- well, we all know who the Ping-Pong player on our team is and that’s Kuchar. Phil is not playing Kooch until Sunday, I think, just because he doesn’t want any bad mojo before the tournament starts.”
That’s what Mickelson brings to the team room with his banter and friendly jabs and smiling energy. He’s the king of good mojo. He always has been. Sunday night, win or lose, he’ll probably still be smiling. And later Sunday night, Kuchar had better be ready. Phil will be.