Phil Mickelson finished with a splash, and a smile, in perhaps his final Ryder Cup as a player

Phil Mickelson finished with a splash, and a smile, in perhaps his final Ryder Cup as a player

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — It wasn’t supposed to end like this for Phil Mickelson. Not all alone on the hillside of a quirky French golf course, Samuel Ryder’s trophy gone, his golf ball and a chunk of his reputation at the bottom of a murky pond. In the moments after Phil lost the Ryder Cup, he staggered off the 16th tee at Le Golf National, looking for someone to hug. No American players or vice captains were following him — they were scattered about babysitting other matches.

As the game versus Francesco Molinari slipped away on the back nine, Mickelson’s wife Amy had been greeting him between every green and tee, to give him a high-5 and a few encouraging words. But now she was in a crowd down the hill from the 16th tee box and Phil had no one. This proud champion has been a part of every U.S. Ryder Cup team since 1994, a dominant force in the team room if not on the golf course.

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There have been a couple of thrilling victories, a defining controversy and more than a few inexplicable losses. Mickelson has rarely brought his best golf to the Ryder Cup, but he’s always been there, in the middle of it all. It was jarring to see him now — face flushed, eyes watery, looking utterly lost. Finally he spied Amy and they embraced on the hillside. “It’s okay, I’m fine,” he said, squeezing her tight.

European captain Thomas Bjorn suddenly materialized. He pulled Mickelson in for a manly hug and then recoiled, to look in his eyes. Bjorn patted him tenderly on the cheek but said nothing. It was the shared respect, and empathy, of two men who have been in the arena many times together. Now U.S. captain Jim Furyk put a hand on Mickelson’s neck and brought him in for a squeeze. He whispered hard in Phil’s ear and Mickelson answered back, “You did a great job this week. It was an honor to play for you.”

Furyk’s decision to spend a captain’s pick on the 48 year-old Mickelson — who hadn’t had a top-10 finish since early May — is not the reason the U.S. lost. Not in a Ryder Cup at which Tiger Woods went 0-4, Dustin Johnson 1-4, Brooks Koepka 1-2-1 and Patrick Reed 1-2. But Mickelson’s struggles will be always be emblematic of an American team that lost its way: his wild play on Friday, the subsequent benching on Saturday, the inglorious denouement on Sunday. When Phil’s ball splashed in the water on 16, giving Molinari a 3 and 2 victory and Europe the 14.5 points it needed, Amy put her hand on her heart and said, “Oh my, that hurt.” And not just for her.

Phil will always be polarizing, and this Ryder Cup will lead to more chatter. Did he deserve a spot on this team as a victory lap on a Hall of Fame career? Vice captain Zach Johnson hinted at just such a thing ahead of Paris, saying, “It’s hard to imagine a Ryder Cup without him.” But Mickelson had inexplicably misplaced his game in the run-up to the Cup and by the time he arrived in Paris he was reaching for the panic button. “I spent more time hitting balls throughout the week than I have all year trying to find something that would click, and it’s just been a struggle,” he said Sunday evening.

Despite that, Furyk did not put him in a position to succeed on the opening day, sending out Mickelson in foursomes, which magnified the ballstriking woes. After a 5 and 4 spanking, Furyk had seen enough, sitting his pick for both sessions and essentially admitting that he had made the wrong call in choosing him. Phil spent the day wearing a tight smile and lustily cheering for his teammates. “He was fine with it, he really was,” said Amy. “He understood. He wanted the team to succeed and once Jim decided that was the best way Phil was totally on board.”

Drawing Molinari in the ninth singles match might’ve been a good break for Mickelson — no one really expected him to beat the ballstriking automaton who has had a series of strong finishes at Le Golf National in past French Opens. Phil needed a fast start but took a bogey from the middle of the fairway to lose the first hole. Molinari made birdie at number three to go 2 up and then at on the 7th hole Mickelson missed a six-footer go 3 down.

It was getting ugly early but, for all of his struggles, Phil is a man of immense pride, and he gamely fought back, winning the ninth and 11th holes to claw his way to 1 down. But Molinari was relentless in hitting fairways and greens to keep the pressure on Mickelson. “The guy is a machine,” Mickelson’s father-in-law Gary McBride said wistfully, sitting alongside the 15th green.

Once the Americans’ morning rally stalled it became only a question of whom would be on the wrong end of the victory celebration. Mickelson was still 3 down facing a 10-foot slider to win the 15th hole. When it trickled by the hole Amy punched the person next to her so hard on the arm she felt compelled to apologize. On 16, a short, downhill par-3 with water guarding the right side of the green, Molinari rifled a typically perfect shot to the heart of the green. Mickelson made a quick swing and knew his ball was wet as soon as it left the clubface. He took off his hat and shook Molinari’s hand, conceding the hole, the match and the Ryder Cup. Molinari was gracious in victory, saying, “Phil is a class act and he fought hard all match today. Obviously he didn’t have his A-game this week, but you know, he fought hard. You hope, you wish to finish the Ryder Cup by holing a putt and making a birdie or stuff like that. But it happens to all of us, and I’m sure [the final shot] is not going to affect, you know, the other stuff that Phil has done in his career. He’s an amazing player, and it’s one shot, so it doesn’t change anything.”

It was possibly the final shot of Phil Mickelson’s Ryder Cup career.

But Mickelson felt the finality of the moment. Afterward, he conceded, “This could very well, realistically, be my last one.” He’s seen it all, ever since going 3-0 as a rookie in 1995: the epic comeback at Brookline, during which he dusted Jarmo Sandelin in singles; the disastrous pairings with Tiger in ’04; the unlikely kismet playing alongside Anthony Kim in the U.S. victory in ’08; the three ugly losses that followed, leading to his press conference mutiny in ’14; the Task Force, of which he was one of the loudest voices; the reputation-saving performance in ’16 to lead the U.S. to a cathartic win. And now, abruptly, it’s over. The golf gods make no allowances for sentimentality.

Mickelson was still lingering on the hill below the 16th tee when hundreds of delirious fans ducked under the ropes and began swarming all the players in the area. Phil grabbed Amy’s hand and shouted, “C’mon, we gotta get out of here!” History will show that Mickelson was not a great Ryder Cupper; a career record of 18-22-7 is unbecoming of a man who is ninth all-time with 43 PGA Tour victories. But he doesn’t deserve to go out the way he did. Rather than a wince and a splash, a better final image is Mickelson bolting through the throngs of European celebrants, absorbing the pats on the back and good-natured ribbing. In golf you rarely get to pick your endings. If this was Phil’s, note that he was smiling the whole way.