The real puppet master behind the U.S. Ryder Cup team is Phil Mickelson, says former PGA of America President Ted Bishop.
Illustration by Joseph Darrow
By Ted Bishop
Thursday, March 05, 2015

When Davis Love III was announced as the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup captain at a press conference at PGA National last week, he sat at a dais, flanked by two PGA of America officials: president Derek Sprague and chief executive officer Pete Bevacqua. The message was clear: The buck stops with these three men. But nothing could be further from the truth.

The real boss of the U.S. Ryder Cup team is Phil Mickelson.

From his pub-stool perch in the second row, Phil presided over the press conference like a hawk surveying its prey. In typical Mickelson fashion, he was courteous to Love and the PGA, allowing them to outline their vision for ’16 and beyond—even though those plans clearly had Mickelson’s fingerprints all over them. He also wasn’t shy about jumping in with his own commentary.

Davis Love III, Ryder Cup captain

Davis Love III (left) sits beside Pete Beacqua, the CEO of the PGA of America and co-chairman of the Ryder Cup Task Force, during his announcement as the 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup captain as Phil Mickelson (back left) and Rickie Fowler look on.
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Many observers assume that Mickelson took control of the Ryder Cup when he blasted Tom Watson on that tumultuous Sunday night last September in Gleneagles, and that the task force was formed because of Phil. As the architect of the task force, I can tell you that isn’t so. I introduced the idea to other PGA officials on the flight home from Scotland, and Phil was one of the first players I spoke to about it. (He immediately bought into the idea.) After losing its eighth Ryder Cup in the last 10 tries, the PGA needed to shake things up. It made sense to involve the players in those discussions, and the task force would have been formed regardless of Mickelson’s passive-aggressive takedown of Watson.

What’s curious is how Love wound up as captain. A majority of the eight men who represented the players and past captains on the task force wanted Fred Couples to take the helm. Many other people believed that Paul Azinger, the winning captain in 2008, should’ve been the choice. But he didn’t have the players’ support. I still keep in touch with Mickelson and several other players from the ’14 team. Phil has told me flatly that he loved Azinger’s system, but he was not a fan of his leadership style. I’ve had my own experiences with Azinger, so I understood where Phil was coming from. Paul is a unique character—he has strong opinions and can sometimes be abrasive.
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It’s clear that Mickelson controlled the tenor of the task-force meetings. Last week, when a reporter asked Love how he evolved from a task-force member to captain, Phil practically knocked down Davis to grab the microphone. Mickelson was quick to point out that Love had not lobbied for the job. He said Davis sees the big picture, has the experience and is a perfect fit. He also acknowledged that Love had made mistakes at Medinah and that he had learned from those mistakes. Phil capped his remarks by saying, “Davis will put us in a position to succeed rather than create obstacles to overcome.” Phil was clearly taking another shot at Watson.

There were other signs of Mickelson’s influence. When asked about the retooled Ryder Cup points system, which will no longer award points for Fall Series events, Mickelson said that the players who competed in the fall were “in the bottom half” of the ’14 qualifiers and gained a distinct advantage by accumulating early Ryder Cup points. Jimmy Walker is one player who enjoyed success in those tournaments and used that as a springboard to make the team. The Fall Series, which Mickelson and most other top players skip, will be replaced for Ryder-points purposes this year by limited-field World Golf Championship events and the Players.

To promote continuity, Davis will stay on as a vice captain in 2018 and ’20. I could see Couples assisting Love at Hazeltine and then leading the charge in Paris in ’18 with Steve Stricker among his assistants. I’m confident Stricker will be the captain in ’20 at Whistling Straits in his native Wisconsin. Jim Furyk should be the choice for ’22, and Mickelson will get the nod in ’24 at Bethpage Black. I remember following Phil during a Ryder Cup practice round at Celtic Manor in 2010. He was playing with Rickie Fowler. On the 18th fairway, totally out of the blue, Phil says, “I’ll tell you what would be a great Ryder Cup venue: Bethpage Black. And I want to be the captain there.” In conversations I’ve had with Phil since then, he has repeated as much. He has been lobbying behind the scenes for the job ever since, and I have no reason to believe that he won’t get it.

At the press conference, the PGA also announced that Mickelson, Love, Tiger Woods and three members from its organization were being named to a permanent Ryder Cup committee. Woods’s absence from the festivities was curious given that he lives in nearby Jupiter. Sure, Tiger is dealing with more serious concerns than the Ryder Cup, but I’m surprised more folks aren’t talking about his no-show.

Conversely, Phil made his presence felt. I can’t help but think that Phil’s taking charge of the U.S. Ryder Cup process might represent the first time in years that he isn’t living in Tiger’s shadow. I wonder if that has motivated Phil, because he certainly seems energized by the task at hand.

Ted Bishop, a past president of the PGA of America, selected Tom Watson to captain the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

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