In back-to-back press conferences on Tuesday, Phil Mickelson and Sergio Garcia seemed to be a microcosm of their respective teams. What they said, and the way they said it, may have spoken volumes.
Mickelson was first up. His energy level seemed low. He looked bored, sounded tired and rattled through several answers as if reading from a teleprompter that he had seen a million times before. He sounded like he would much rather be painting his garden fence than high-fiving his new buddies in the team room.
This is Mickelson’s seventh Ryder Cup appearance. He is 9-12-4 in his six previous Cups, all losing efforts except for 1999 at Brookline. For a guy with 34 PGA Tour victories, that’s a lot more losing than he’s used to. The highlight for Mickelson must have been beating Tiger Woods at ping-pong, and he can’t even do that this year.
In the absence of Woods, and with the memory of all those defeats eating away at him, you might expect Mickelson to embrace the role of inspirational senior statesman for his team. At Wednesday’s press conference, however, he didn’t seem very fired up.
“My only responsibility is to play well,” he said. Pressed about whether he felt any more responsibility to be a leader off the course with so many rookies on the team, Mickelson deferred to his captain.
“I think captain Azinger has been a wonderful leader for us,” Mickelson said. “He’s given us great direction. One of the biggest challenges heading in to a Ryder Cup is some of the uncertainty we’ll face during the week. He’s done a great job of letting everybody know what to expect. I feel like the guys who have not played in this event are ready to play, so I think the leadership has really come from our captain.”
It all sounded like a press release. Asked what excites him most about the Ryder Cup, he said: “It becomes a week where friendships are formed that last a career and memories occur that last a lifetime.” Where was the passion?
It was with Sergio Garcia, that’s where. He was grinning and laughing and talking up the European’s team spirit. Of course, it’s easy to have fun when you’re winning, and Garcia has played a major role in making life miserable for Mickelson and his pals at the Ryder Cup.
Garcia is three major victories behind Mickelson (and his teammate Padraig Harrington), but the Ryder Cup is his major environment. This is Garcia’s fifth Ryder Cup, and he has accumulated a stunning 14-4-2 record, winning 15 points out of 20. In foursomes, he is 8-0-0. No wonder the 28-year-old smiles a lot during the Ryder Cup.
With Colin Montgomerie not on the team this year, it was suggested that the time had come for Garcia to assume more of a leadership role.
“I’m not going to be any different than I have in the past,” he said. “I’m here for the team. If any of the rookies, or anybody, feels like they need to talk to me on any subject, I’m always willing to. But I’m not going to puff my chest out and say I’m the leader of this team. There are 12 leaders on this team, and the most important thing is that we are all together.
“I say it from the bottom of my heart; I would rather go 0 and 5 and win the Ryder Cup as a team than go 5 and 0 and lose it. It’s not about me this week.”
Garcia spoke with emotion and purpose and energy, and he sounded like he meant it. Garcia was also asked what excites him most about the Ryder Cup.
“One of the things I love is how everybody loosens up and opens up, and you learn more about your teammates than in any other week, and all the emotions come out.”
He said a lot of the same things as Mickelson, but it didn’t sound like he was reading a script. Since the teams arrived in Kentucky on Monday, little has been said about the importance of Mickelson to his team. But European captain Nick Faldo, and even Azinger, have been falling over themselves to worship at the altar of Europe’s Ryder Cup god.
Garcia’s presence is already looming large over Valhalla Country Club. Hurricane Ike has blown past, but El Nino is in town.
“You can’t always identify what the intangible is, but he seems to have that,” Azinger said of Garcia’s incredible Ryder Cup record. “If you could bottle it, you would probably sell it.”