Phil Mickelson will have undisputed elder-statesman, king-of-the-hill status at a Ryder Cup without Tiger Woods
Every Ryder Cup has its own tone, and it is set early. Look at the 1993 matches, the last time Tom Watson was the captain of the U.S. team. You knew going in that the event would be nasty, and it was. After that whole War by the Shore thing in '91, Europe came in bruised and feisty. Watson's team apologized for nothing.
This year's Ryder Cup is going to be nothing like it. It will be a love-in. Here's your 2014 mantra: Everybody play nice.
It's not that Watson, who is making a command performance, has mellowed over the past 21 years. He's just as prickly and righteous as ever. It will be a gentle affair in part because so many of the European players are de facto Floridians who play the U.S. circuit and in part because of the tone of cooperation set in the finale to last week's stunning PGA Championship. This will be Rory and Phil's Ryder Cup. Emphasis on Phil.
At Valhalla on Sunday, Phil Mickelson and Rickie Fowler, in the penultimate pairing, allowed the Europeans in the final twosome to tee off on 18 while the Americans were still walking to their tee shots. It was an unprecedented display of sportsmanship. At least three and maybe four of those players will be teeing it up in the Ryder Cup, to be held on Sept. 26-28 at Gleneagles in Scotland.
Fowler and Mickelson are two of the most popular players in the game. In the final group was Bernd Wiesberger of Austria, who has a chance to make the European team, which will be captained by an Irish gent, Paul McGinley. The other player in the final group, of course, was Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland, winner of the British Open last month and the PGA Championship.
Rory will be a big personality on a team with big personalities, including Sergio García, Graeme McDowell and Ian Poulter, all of whom are likely to make the European squad.
Then there's Phil, untethered as he's never been before. He secured his spot on the U.S. team with his play last week, when he made a lost, distracted year suddenly meaningful. He's 44, and he'll be a Ryder Cup captain himself pretty soon, but this year he's going to get the can-you-believe-this-guy treatment like he never has before. This will be his 10th Ryder Cup appearance, a record. Ten! He has been on every Ryder Cup team since 1995. The longevity of his career is starting to look Nicklausian.
The kids on the team, including rookies Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth, will surely take their cues from Phil. Two other young players, Fowler and Keegan Bradley, already see him as a mentor and the living-large older brother they never had. Fowler is one of nine players who made the team on points, at the conclusion of the PGA. Bradley did not -- he was 13th on the list -- but he is expected to be one of the three captain's picks Watson will announce on Sept. 2.
Bradley, 28, is likely to be picked because he has shown an intense commitment to Ryder Cup play. Last month he made a trip to Gleneagles, at his own expense, to scout the course. Watson is also likely to pick Bradley because he and Mickelson have been a formidable pair in team competitions. As partners, their combined Presidents Cup and Ryder Cup record is 5-1-1.
But Mickelson is most likely to be the dominant personality of this year's Ryder Cup because of two big names who will be missing. The first absentee is Dustin Johnson, a study in cool nonchalance. Johnson is the anti-Phil, who is never afraid to show how much effort he makes. Johnson's name no longer appears on the Ryder Cup points list, in the wake of his July 31 statement that he was taking a leave of absence from golf to deal with personal issues. It would only be natural that Johnson's cool would temper Mickelson's earnestness.
The second absentee is Tiger Woods. After missing the cut at Valhalla, Woods removed himself from Ryder Cup consideration and said that he won't play competitively again until December as he combats ongoing back issues. A team without Woods gives Mickelson undisputed elder-statesman, king-of-the-hill status. That's what he had in 2008, when the U.S. won at Valhalla while Woods was recovering from knee surgery.
Last week the Ryder Cup was in the muggy Louisville air. Americans were playing to nail down spots, or impress Watson if they did not. Jason Dufner, winner of last year's PGA Championship, withdrew in the middle of the first round with a neck injury. He fell from eighth to 10th on the points list, and there's little chance Watson will pick him. Zach Johnson secured the ninth spot, and Reed moved to eighth.
Having those two pleases Watson. He is looking for players who can putt and close and have heart, and each hits the trifecta. Reed has an outsider personality and said last week he welcomes the chance "to be a guy on a team, like I was in college." That was almost funny, because first at Georgia, and later when he transferred to Augusta State, Reed was never the beloved teammate type. But Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup competition is a chance for a player to reinvent himself. That's why it has become so important to Woods since his life was turned upside down by his scandal. Watch what happens when Mickelson embraces Reed and makes him feel like one of the guys.
The nine players assured of their places on the U.S. team sound like one of the least formidable national squads ever: Bubba Watson, who runs hot and cold as a golfer and a person; Fowler, a remarkable talent who still has only one Tour victory; Jim Furyk, who has shown no ability to close since his last victory, in 2010; Jimmy Walker, who hasn't won since February; Mickelson, whose runner-up at the PGA was his first top 10 of the season; Matt Kuchar, who withdrew from the PGA with a bad back; Spieth, a phenomenal talent but only 21; Reed, who hasn't won since March; and Johnson, who hasn't won since January. Not exactly hot.
Assuming Bradley is one of Watson's three picks, what will he do for the other two? Chris Kirk? Harris English? Brandt Snedeker?
On Sunday night, watching the action from his Louisville hotel room, Watson was relieved to know he wouldn't have to burn a captain's pick on Mickelson. Watson will have Andy North, Steve Stricker and Raymond Floyd as assistants in Scotland. But the real vice captain of this team announced his presence last week, and it is Phil, older, wiser, unencumbered and packing some late-season mojo.