Mickelson fails to seize the moment

September 21, 2008

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) — Six feet. Six little feet. A testy putt, to be sure, but one that defines the legacy of a player such as Phil Mickelson.

Besides, this is what Lefty had longed for: a chance to seize the moment at the Ryder Cup, a chance to give the Americans a crucial boost going to the final day of an event they haven’t won since 1999.

This is surely what U.S. captain Paul Azinger had in mind when he sent Mickelson back to the course in the afternoon, even after his dream pairing with Anthony Kim squandered the closest thing to a sure win in the morning.

So, Mickelson studied the putt at the 17th hole from every angle, took a couple of swings just for practice, then settled over the ball.

He drew his club back, and swung it forward. The ball was on its way.

Right by the cup.

After a day of seeming redemption, Mickelson’s shaky Ryder Cup history bubbled back to the surface Saturday. He and Kim, probably the most talented American tandem, tossed away a 4-up lead after six holes in an alternate-shot match against Henrik Stenson and unheralded Oliver Wilson, whom the Europeans didn’t even bother to use on the opening day.

Then, Mickelson missed that short birdie putt, which would have broken a tie going to the final hole. He wasn’t much help on the 18th, either, knocking his tee shot into a bunker, putting his second shot on the side of a hill and then making a tentative chip.

It was left to Hunter Mahan to bail the Americans out. He made a huge birdie putt at No. 18 and the Americans escaped with a half-point in their match against Stenson and Robert Karlsson. The home team goes to the final day with a 9-7 lead, but it might have been bigger with more of a contribution from Mickelson.

“It was a very emotional and up-and-down day,” Lefty conceded. “But we fought hard all day, and Hunter and I hung in there. Obviously we wanted to win. We had opportunities for that.”

Paired with Kim for an alternate-shot match, Mickelson sure had plenty of chances to win. Heck, it looked over when a par at No. 6 gave the Americans a commanding four-hole cushion.

But Mickelson and Kim quickly handed it back, losing four of the next six holes. Then, after another errant drive by Lefty at No. 15 and an unnecessarily bold shot by Kim around a tree, off a European official and into a creek, the Europeans were ahead to stay.

Wilson sank a 30-foot birdie at No. 17 to put the pressure on Mickelson. He missed a 20-footer to keep the match going. Kim, watching with his hands on his knee, nearly crumpled to the ground.

“We had some momentum,” Mickelson said. “Unfortunately, a couple of bad shots by us, and we ended up squandering a lead. We still fought hard. It looked like we were going to bring that thing down to the end until that long putt.”

And what about Mickelson’s putt at that same hole a few hours later, after U.S. captain Paul Azinger shook up his pairings to put his highest-ranked player with Hunter Mahan?

“I kept reading more and more break as I got over it,” Mickelson said. “I didn’t want to jam it in, and I just overplayed the break. It wasn’t that hard, but it was about … three or four inches out, and I overplayed it just a touch.”

In all fairness, the Americans ran into an extremely hot player. Karlsson made six birdies in seven holes, including four in a row, to erase a 2-up lead for Mickelson and Mahan. Fortunately for the U.S., the Swede missed a downhill 12-footer for eagle at the 18th that would have given Europe a full point.

Both sides settled for a hard-earned halve.

Mickelson, who was 1-7-1 in the two previous Ryder Cups, is now 1-1-2 at Valhalla, accounting for more points in the bluegrass state than he managed at Oakland Hills and the K Club combined.

Still, there are doubts about his state of mind heading into singles play on Sunday. Mickelson will be in the fourth group out, facing Justin Rose and seeking his first singles win since 1999.

In 2002, he lost a pivotal match to Phillip Price, ranked 119th in the world at the time, at the Belfry. He was beaten by a pair of Spaniards, Sergio Garcia and Jose Maria Olazabal, in the European routs of ’04 and ’06.

Azinger insisted there’s no concern about Mickelson falling short again.

“I’m not worried about Mickelson’s mind-set at all,” the captain told reporters late Saturday. “My message all week long to you guys is anything that happened in the past is in the past and has no bearing on what’s going on.”

Azinger’s only advice to Mickelson will be of a dietary nature. Lefty apparently went through quite a spread before his loss to Price six years ago.

“I hope it’s not three waffles, two eggs and a Diet Coke,” Azinger said. “I heckled him about that already.”

Mickelson was paired with Kim for two matches Friday – at Lefty’s request – and the duo worked beautifully together, high-fiving each other all the way around the course. Twice, they rallied from three-hole deficits, pulling out a halve against Padraig Harrington and Karlsson and winning 2-up over Harrington and Graeme McDowell.

Saturday morning, the tables turned.

Naturally, Mickelson was eager to get back on the course, and Azinger obliged. Justin Leonard, who putted brilliantly in his match to help earn a half-point, might have been the better choice. But he, too, knew Lefty was eager for redemption after helping blow such a big lead.

“You certainly wouldn’t think those guys would lose that match,” Leonard said. “I think that’s one of the reasons Phil wanted to go back out, because that’s going to leave a bad taste is his mouth.”

He can only hope it’s not there Sunday night.