GLENEAGLES Scotland -- How do you keep losing Ryder Cups again and again? As a team. You win as a team, you lose as a team. The Europeans excel at it, especially the winning part.
The Americans? They’ve got the losing part down. The team part? Sometimes, you wonder.
Over the last four or five Ryder Cups, the American players were finally starting to shake their image, fair or not, of selfish individuals who don’t play well with others and who were incapable of becoming a true team in the manner of the Europeans, who share an unbreakable bond like brothers or drinking buddies or all-for-one Musketeers.
Then Phil Mickelson opened his mouth at the press conference for the losing team -- that would be the United States for the eighth time in the last ten Ryder Cups -- and effectively threw captain Tom Watson under the bus.
If there was a schism on the American team, and there had been some public criticism of Watson’s pairings and decision but no reason to think anything was amiss among the players, it was quiet and subtle and unspoken among the team. Until Phil.
It doesn’t sound as if Watson’s old-school approach to the Ryder Cup went down smoothly with another loss. In Watson’s eyes, the players play and the captains captain.
Maybe Phil had heard enough about Watson not really taking the blame for some questionable pairings, notably leaving Phil and partner Keegan Bradley out of action for the whole day Saturday.
Maybe Phil thought Watson was passing the blame for this loss to the players. Saturday, Watson likened the players to actors and said they simply hadn’t “acted well enough to earn the standing ovation at the end.”
Sunday night after the five-point loss to Europe, Watson was asked for the umpteenth time why the Euros have a stranglehold on this event.
“The obvious answer is that our team has to play better,” Watson said. “And they do. I think they recognize that fact. That collectively 12 players have to play better.”
Fast-forward past a few lame media questions. A writer asked Phil, since he was on the winning squad at Valhalla in 2008 captained by Paul Azinger, what worked that year for the U.S. that hasn’t worked since?
There were two things Azinger did that allowed the players to play their best, Phil said. “One was he got everybody invested in the process… who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, when they would play. And they had a great leader for each pod. In my case, that was Raymond Floyd.
“We hung out together and were all invested in each other’s play. We were invested in picking Hunter Mahan that week.
“The other thing Paul did really was he had a great game plan… how we were going to go about playing together; the golf ball; the format; what we were going to do, if so-and-so is playing well or if so-and-so is not playing well. We had a real game plan. Those two things helped us bring out our best golf.
“We all do the best we can and were all trying our hardest. We use the same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.” That didn’t happen this week, he was asked.
“Uh…” Phil paused, realizing now that he’d opened Pandora’s Box and a can of worms or worse, maybe Pandora’s Can of Worms. “No,” Phil said. “Nobody here was in any decision. So, no.”
Watson had heard about Azinger and his successful pod theory and the other methods Azinger used to build a winner. Watson had a different philosophy and wasn’t interested in using Azinger’s psychological profiling. Watson is old school. Players play, captains captain.
Watson, in turn, refrained from throwing Mickelson back under the bus after his comments.
“Phil has a difference of a opinion,” Watson said. “That’s okay. My management philosophy is different than his.”
The British media has a tabloid bent and they were off, helped out by some American media types, too. Phil had just hijacked the losers’ press conference. Another question for Phil: You seem to know the strategy for winning the Ryder Cup, are you willing --
“Oh, no,” Mickelson said, cutting off the questioner. “I’ve been on eight losing teams, no.” He waited for the moderate laughter to die. It was getting uncomfortable in here. At the far end of the room, where vice captains Andy North, Raymond Floyd and Steve Stricker sat right in front of me, the seat-squirming was noticeable. Floyd mumbled something to one of the others. I didn’t hear it but it was probably what the rest of us were thinking -- Phil, WTF? (That’s online jargon for What the heck?)
“I’m only reflecting on the one time in the last 15 years that we won and what allowed us to do that,” Mickelson said.
There was more to come. Tom, do you still consider your philosophy a winning philosophy? “Yes, absolutely,” he answered.
Why did you discount Azinger’s book? “I didn’t,” Watson said. “I just had a different philosophy.”
He went through how he relied on his vice captains and observations and interactions with players in making his choices and added at the end, “Listen, the Europeans kicked our butts. They were better players this week. We had a chance and they turned it on us and that’s what champions are made of. They get down, then come back and win. That’s the bottom line.”
The hijacking continued as another writer asked veteran Jim Furyk for his opinion of the discourse between Mickelson and Watson.
“Gee thanks,” Furyk joked. “I was just sitting here minding my own business.”
There were laughs. Some. Still uncomfortable. Mickelson, sitting on the opposite end of the players table from Furyk, jumped in again. “I don’t think the premise of your question is very well-stated. I don’t think that this has been back and forth.” Then Furyk took a diplomatic, smart swing.
“I have a lot of respect for both gentlemen,” Furyk said. “Phil is one of my dearest friends on the PGA Tour. And I have a lot of respect for our captain. He put his heart and soul in it for two years and worked his ass off to provide what he thought to be the best opportunity for us. I don’t think it’s wise for either one of us to be pitted in the middle of that… We all come here trying to win a Ryder Cup together, trying to pull together as one. We’ve fallen short quite a bit.
“Tonight, five of you have already asked me what’s the difference year-in, year-out. If I could put my finger on it, I would have changed this s--t a long time ago. But I haven’t and we are going to keep searching.”
When the press conference ended, the Americans did as they usually do after a Ryder Cup -- hurried out the side door, climbed into carts and motored off without stopping to chat further. It’s a long week and nobody enjoys talking about failure, but the funny thing was, when they won at Valhalla in 2008, several players who are considered among the Tour’s nicest guys literally jogged out the door to the carts to escape the media, with whom they’d just spent all of 20 minutes with.
Earlier in the week, Nick Faldo broke the captain’s code during a Ryder Cup telecast. There was mention of Sergio Garcia’s excellent playing record and Faldo quickly pointed that the exception, the year that he was on Faldo’s team -- at Valhalla, coincidentally. Faldo said Garcia had a bad attitude, didn’t want to play and was “useless.”
Several teammates came to Garcia’s defense and even Garcia said he could say some bad things about Faldo but wouldn’t stoop to that level.
It’s the Ryder Cup. Some things are sacred. Like the Ryder Cup Code: You win as a team and you lose as a team.
Phil Mickelson should know that. He did know that. He knew exactly what he was saying and what he was doing.
Tom Watson’s team lost the Ryder Cup but he didn’t break The Code. Phil Mickelson did. With no code, there’s no team anymore. Maybe the Americans aren’t really a team. Maybe they’re not at all like the close-knit band of brothers they battle every two years.
And maybe it’s time to reconsider what other element the Americans’ last eight Ryder Cup losses had in common.