CHASKA, Minn. – Phil Mickelson has always had a flair for international diplomacy. A quarter century ago, as an amateur playing in the Walker Cup at Portmarnock in Ireland, he said of an errant drive into the gallery, “That’s not a place I want to be. The Irish women are not that attractive.” An uproar ensued, and Phil apologized profusely, but he’s never really stopped being a rascal.
Two years ago he forever altered the Ryder Cup in an exquisitely awkward press conference in which he criticized his clueless captain, the heretofore legendary Tom Watson. Unlike the crack about Irish lasses, this one was more well thought-out. As he has grown older, Mickelson rarely opens his mouth without an agenda, and the post-mortem at Gleneagles with the world watching was a tremendous platform to agitate for change. In shredding Watson, Mickelson nudged the U.S. Ryder Cup system toward a new era of greater transparency, collaboration and communication among the players and leadership. Those who criticized Phil for not airing his complaints behind closed doors don’t get that this was a political move for the greater good and not a personal grievance, though the latter helped inspire the former, as Watson’s bungling of the pairings had left Mickelson benched during all of the second day.
In the two years since, Mickelson has been a driving force in changing the culture of the American Ryder Cup effort. “I think back to first meeting of Ryder Cup task force, for which he flew across the country,” Pete Bevacqua, the CEO of the PGA of America, said on Friday morning, in the shadow of the clubhouse at Hazeltine National Golf Club. “He was so passionate in that meeting to the point where he jumped to his feet to talk about how much the Ryder Cup means to him and what we could do differently and how we could for the first time build a program. He wanted to be a key part, and he’s been as invested as anyone since day one and exhibited unbelievable leadership qualities.”
And yet the rascal still lives within. Earlier this week Mickelson created another brushfire by going back 12 years to criticize his old captain Hal Sutton for not giving him enough time to adjust to using Tiger Woods’s ball in an alternate-shot pairing. It was a highly illustrative example of the poor planning that has doomed so many U.S. Ryder Cup teams, but it also smacked of revisionist history—Mickelson failed to discuss his controversial equipment change on the eve of that Ryder Cup—and an attempt to justify his ongoing activism. Sutton offered a pithy reply in the media and once again Mickelson had hijacked a Ryder Cup while seated in the press room.
“He felt awful, and he called Hal so many times he was like an ex-girlfriend,” says Mickelson’s wife, Amy. She has been through endless controversies with her college sweetheart, but the scrutiny ever since the Watson confrontation has been at a fever pitch. “It’s exhausting,” Amy says. “I would love to get off this rollercoaster. As much as I appreciate that Phil has been looking out for the other guys, can’t just one time someone else step up and say what needs to be said?”
With all of this as the backdrop, Mickelson arrived on the 1st tee on Friday morning for the second match of this Ryder Cup, a foursomes pairing with Rickie Fowler, a captain’s pick for whom he had strongly advocated behind the scenes. They were taking on Europe’s alpha male, Rory McIlroy, and seemingly nerveless rookie Andy Sullivan. Mickelson knew what was at stake. It’s true that Sutton and Corey Pavin (in 2010) were bad captains, but Mickelson has dragged down various U.S. teams with mediocre play. A career record of 16-19-7 simply doesn’t cut it for one of the dozen greatest players of all-time.
Said Mickelson, “It was a match where I felt more pressure than in any Ryder Cup because of the last two years and the buildup.”
He looked tight in the early going and, especially with the driver, was swinging out of his shoes. On the par-5 6th hole of the alternate-shot format, Mickelson hit a violent hook out-of-bounds, handing the hole and a 2 up lead to Europe.
“The thing I love about Phil,” says U.S. captain Davis Love III, “is he hits a terrible tee ball on 6 and then they kind of make a mess on 7, but Phil stands up there on the 8th tee and hits a great shot in close. He comes up to me matter-of-factly and says, ‘My stock seven-iron goes 185, so I took three yards off it.’ Like it’s that easy! But even when the chips are down, he exudes that confidence and we all feel it.”
Birdies on the tough 13th and 14th holes pushed Europe back to two up and suddenly Mickelson was facing a defining moment in a career full of them. Jack Nicklaus was on hand at Hazeltine on Friday, and he flashed back to his captaincy of the 2003 President Cup, at which Mickelson went 0-5.
“He actually played pretty good,” said Nicklaus, “but he kept getting beat. He had the opportunity to take the team down with him, but he didn’t. As soon as his match was over Phil raced out onto the golf course to cheer on the other guys. He was always upbeat, always encouraging, sharing swing tips, thoughts on how to play the course, making jokes at dinner to keep everybody loose. At the end of four days, we tied the Internationals and in front of my team I told Phil you were my MVP because of your attitude. That’s the kind of teammate he was, and he’s grown into even more of a leader now.”
Throughout the first 14 holes, Mickelson often went to the whip with his young teammate, and Fowler’s strong play kept the Yanks in it. Now Phil took on the challenge himself, with gorgeous approach shots at both 15 and 16 that leveled the match. On the par-3 17th hole, Fowler, hitting first, stuffed his tee shot and for the first time all day Sullivan seemed overwhelmed by the moment, duffing his shot into the hazard. After the 1-up victory Mickelson stood shoulder to shoulder with his partner and said, “I played a little tight, and my man here got me to hit some shots in the end. He got the best out of me.”
Even with the match over Mickelson wouldn’t stop coaching. Love came up to him and was clearly agonizing over whether to send Phil out again, even though he had already drawn up plans to give his 46-year stalwart the afternoon off. Mickelson had said he was looking forward to resting and then hitting the range to straighten out his driver, so he subtly steered Love in that direction, though he concluded by saying, “Whatever you want is fine by me. You’re doing it f—— perfect.”
Said Love, “He gives me confidence. Even when I tell him he’s going to sit out he tells me it’s a great decision, even if he doesn’t say why. Phil’s a great team player. He went through a lot the last few days. He and Hal had some tough conversations and made up. We worried about sticking him right out there this morning, so we asked him. He said he was ready to go. You have to trust him because he’s one of the best players ever.”
Indeed, Mickelson’s place in the pantheon is secure. But for all the individual glory he has enjoyed, this last act of his career may be defined largely by what he has done for others. Mickelson has said his goal is to find a formula that will allow the U.S. to win not this Ryder Cup but eight of the next 10. It’s a wildly ambitious goal, but Phil hasn’t come this far by thinking small.