Phil Mickelson and Steve Stricker are tall and handsome, and each married his college sweetheart, but the similarities pretty much end there. Mickelson is one of golf’s extroverts, a brash know-it-all with a wicked wit he rarely displays for his adoring public. The size of his personality is exceeded only by the depth of his talent. Stricker is soft-spoken and shy, and his quiet success has stamped him as the game’s biggest overachiever, despite a brutal mid-career slump that earned him not one but two comeback player of the year awards. At last week’s Presidents Cup at Harding Park, Mickelson and Stricker unexpectedly had something new in common: They led the U.S. to a 19 1/2-14 1/2 victory over the Internationals that wasn’t as close as the score might indicate.
Mickelson and Stricker summoned spectacular golf, but just as important was the effect of their differing presences, especially during the opening three days of partner play, when the U.S. built a decisive lead that rendered Sunday singles mostly ceremonial. Mickelson, 39, solidified his role as the Americans’ elder statesman by guiding, cajoling and inspiring to victory three partners who were in varying states of fragility. Stricker, meanwhile, had to worry about pleasing only one very important teammate, Tiger Woods, who had handpicked the mild-mannered Wisconsinite to be his wingman. Over the Cup’s first three days they rolled to a 4-0 record together. After inexplicably uneven play in his first five Presidents Cups — and, for that matter, his five Ryder Cups — Woods at long last had found his comfort zone, and he carried the momentum into singles, waxing Y.E. Yang 6 and 5 and clinching the Cup with a birdie on the 13th hole. “For me, obviously, it’s one of my better Cup experiences,” Woods said. “We won, and that’s the name of the game, whether you go 0-5 or 5-0.” Especially when you go 5-0.
The tone for this Cup was set during the first session, last Thursday’s foursomes. Mickelson was sent out in the opening match alongside Anthony Kim, the flighty 24-year-old who had been one of the stars at last year’s Ryder Cup (at which he played three matches with Phil). Kim has struggled ever since, but he found a spark teaming with Mickelson for a 3-and-2 victory over Mike Weir and Tim Clark. “Phil helped me get out of this funk I’ve been in for the last year,” Kim said. “He kept pushing me to play aggressively, and that was a sign he believed I could pull off the shots. It was the confidence boost I’ve been looking for.”
In their first-ever match together Woods and Stricker didn’t lose a hole in a 6-and-4 thumping of Geoff Ogilvy and Ryo Ishikawa. “We had Steve putting on every hole, which, trust me, is a pretty nice feeling to have,” said Woods.
Mickelson was sent out first again for Friday’s four-ball. This time his partner was Justin Leonard, who the day before had missed a short putt on the 18th hole to cost his team a half point and leave the U.S. with a slim 3 1/2-2 1/2 lead. With Mickelson jawing at him throughout the match, Leonard made a handful of key putts, and Phil added five birdies en route to a 3-and-2 victory over Adam Scott and Retief Goosen. “He’s a great coach out there,” Leonard said. “We started talking strategy last night, so he helped me mentally get into playing today.”
Woods and Stricker kept rolling with a 5-and-3 takedown of Ogilvy and Angel Cabrera, who according to the rankings made up the Internationals’ strongest team. Woods’s 10-9-1 record in previous Prez Cup partner play was a reflection not of his apathy, as is often perceived, but of the unease he instills in his teammates, who either try too hard or feel unworthy, or both. But Stricker is unflappable, and he tenaciously played his own game. For his part Tiger doesn’t like playing with flashy types — recall his disastrous pairing with Mickelson at the ’04 Ryder Cup — and prefers the company of fellow grinders. Of Stricker, he says, “I hit the ball a little farther, but our mentality and how we play and how we compete is exactly the same.” From Woods, that’s the highest praise.
A late rally by the Internationals on Friday kept them within a point, but that only set the stage for Woods to give this Presidents Cup its defining moment during Saturday-morning foursomes. Tiger was a nonfactor for most of the match versus Weir and Clark, and the U.S. was 2 down playing the 13th hole. But at 17 Woods buried a fist-pump-inducing 22-footer for birdie that squared the match. Then, on the par-5 18th, from 232 yards out, he ripped a high, cut three-iron. Woods chased after the shot, posing with a frozen follow-through. His ball settled within nine feet of the hole, and the eagle was ultimately conceded, giving the Yanks a tide-turning comeback win.
In his traditional leadoff spot Mickelson brought home another point paired with rookie Sean O’Hair, who had looked shaky losing his first two matches. For all the pom-pom waving Mickelson was doing, O’Hair said he was elevated more by his partner’s fine play. “Right now Phil is hitting it very long, very straight, and he’s putting it straight [into the hole],” said O’Hair. “That takes a lot of pressure off the partner.”
With 3 1/2 of five points in the session, the U.S. bumped its overall lead to three points, and it maintained that advantage by splitting the afternoon four-ball.
A scintillating golf marathon was in the books, but for the Americans the highlight of the day was still to come. Her battle with breast cancer had kept Amy Mickelson at home near San Diego, but on Saturday afternoon she surreptitiously flew up to San Francisco and sneaked into her hubby’s hotel room. “She was hiding in the bathroom and scared the crap out of me,” Phil says.
Beaming, he escorted her to the team dinner, and much hugging and crying ensued. This is the Mickelsons’ 15th straight Cup — Ryder or Presidents — and though Phil was often the life of the party last week, he was clearly missing his bride. “That was a special thing to have Amy here,” said Stricker. “It wasn’t the same without her around. She definitely gave all of us a lift.”
It was the Internationals who could’ve used a little extra inspiration as they were in the desperate position of needing to win eight of 12 points in singles. A fast start to build momentum was crucial, but captain Greg Norman inexplicably led off with rookie Camilo Villegas, who was 0-3 to that point, and his captain’s pick, Adam Scott, who had lost three straight matches after an opening victory. Predictably, both got thumped (by Hunter Mahan and Stewart Cink, respectively), making the outcome inevitable. All three of Mickelson’s pet projects came through for the U.S. in early matches, and it was left to Woods to officially end the Cup in his grudge match with Yang, the surprise winner over Tiger at this year’s PGA Championship. With the singles victory Woods became only the third player, joining Mark O’Meara (1996) and Shigeki Maruyama (’98), to go 5-0 at the Presidents Cup. (Mickelson, who defeated Goosen, had to settle for 4-0-1, while Stricker ran out of gas on Sunday, losing to Ogilvy to finish 4-1.)
“You need [Woods] to step up to the plate, and sometimes he hasn’t done that,” said Norman. “This time he did. That injected a lot of adrenaline into the rest of the team.” Indeed it did, but Tiger wouldn’t have been the same without Stricker, just as the other Americans were lifted by Mickelson’s estimable contributions. In his own way, each offered a compelling lesson in teamwork.