Scottish Daily Mail

Phil driven by painful memories

- reports from Hazeltine MARTIN SAMUEL

PHIL MICKELSON was out on the range hitting golf balls. His own golf balls. Nothing unusual in that. Except earlier, in an attempt to explain how Team USA regularly got the Ryder Cup so badly wrong, Mickelson had told a story about his preparatio­n for the event at Oakland Hills in 2004; and how he came to be practising the day before the tournament, on his own, in secret, with equipment that was entirely foreign to him in a doomed attempt to make a flawed strategy work.

It was the year of Team USA’s heaviest defeat on home soil, of captain Hal Sutton in a gauche cowboy hat and of a partnershi­p that came to encapsulat­e America’s malaise. Mickelson, with Tiger Woods, the hosts’ leading players that year and, on paper, the perfect partnershi­p.

Their downfall was like the breakup of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston. If those two couldn’t make it work, what chance was there for any of us?

Woods was world No 2 at the time — behind only Vijay Singh — Mickelson world No 4. The highest ranked member of the European team was Padraig Harrington, at No 8. Leading off with Woods and Mickelson in the first-day fourballs was Sutton’s attempt at shock and awe. He wanted his lead pair to blitz the Europeans into early inadequacy. Instead, they lost 2&1 to Harrington and Colin Montgomeri­e.

Deployed in the afternoon foursomes, they went down to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. By close on day one, America trailed by five points. Mickelson tells the story.

‘Tiger and I were paired together and we ended up not playing well,’ he began. ‘But we were only told two days before and that gave us no time to prepare.

‘The year earlier when we played at the Presidents Cup we found out the golf ball I was playing was not going to work for him. He plays a very high-spin ball and I play a very lowspin ball — and now we had two days to find a solution. So I grabbed two dozen of his balls, went off to the side, and tried to learn to play with it in a four or five-hour session, isolated on one of the other holes.

‘I was trying to find out how far the ball goes and it forced me to stop my preparatio­n for the tournament, to stop chipping and putting and sharpening my game, to stop learning the golf course. In the history of my career, I have never ball-tested two days prior to a major.

‘Had we known a month in advance, we might have been able to make it work. I think we probably would have made it work. Now, I’m not trying to knock anybody here, because I actually loved how decisive captain Sutton was, but that put us in a position to fail and we failed monumental­ly.

‘Then people say, ‘‘Well, you just need to play better’’. That is so misinforme­d because you will play how you prepare. And I’ve had to be accountabl­e for that decision for 12 years.

‘Even a month ago, there’s an analyst on the Golf Channel accusing me of not being a team player because I went away and worked on a hole on my own. I don’t know if you can imagine how frustratin­g it is to care so much about something and to be held accountabl­e for so many decisions that you are just not part of.’

And that has been the story of America’s Ryder Cup for many of Mickelson’s 22-year span coming to the tournament.

He has always qualified, never once needed to be a captain’s pick, this is his 11th consecutiv­e competitio­n, he has played 41 matches — a United States record — and won just 16.

SO now he has chosen accountabi­lity. Mickelson, 46, was part of the Ryder Cup Task Force that, it is hoped, will transform American fortunes at Hazeltine this week; so was Woods, and returning captain Davis Love III.

Its creation followed a lacerating press conference after the last defeat, at Gleneagles two years ago, when Mickelson sat alongside captain Tom Watson while offering a public critique that reduced his leadership regime to rubble. He did it by praising Paul Azinger’s style in 2008 — a rare American win — but the implicatio­n was clear.

‘We had a great formula,’ Mickelson said. ‘I don’t know why we abandoned it.’

It is Love that Mickelson credits with regenerati­ng feelings of optimism around Team USA.

‘It all starts with the captain,’ he said. ‘He’s the guy that has to bring together 12 strong individual­s and allow them a platform to play their best. That’s the whole foundation of the team.

‘People say the guys just need to hit better or putt better. Absolutely. But in major championsh­ips, when we win or play well, it’s because we prepared properly. In a Ryder Cup, you have to prepare for the event and this week we have a very different feel.

‘When players are put in a position to succeed, more often than not they succeed, and when they are put in positions to fail, most of the time they tend to fail.

‘Captain Love has been putting us in a position to succeed. He’s taken input from all parties. He’s making decisions that have allowed us to prepare our best and play our best, and I believe that we will.’

One of the most dramatic sights around Hazeltine this week has been Woods, one of Love’s vice-captains, in buoyant mood as a mentor for this team, laughing and joking with Mickelson down practice fairways, in stark contrast to the thousand-mile stares that marked their pairing at Oakland Hills.

Back then, on the 18th, having surrendere­d a three-hole lead in the foursomes, Mickelson’s drive put Woods in trouble. His partner responded with a look that would have put the frightener­s on Darth Vader. The relationsh­ip Mickelson described yesterday was a galaxy far, far away from that.

‘It’s been great,’ he said. ‘We’ve been talking on the phone multiple times each day and that’s really exciting for us because we’ve been on so many teams for so many years, and to have this much input and involvemen­t in the process is fun.

‘The way Davis has implemente­d it, the way he’s brought everybody together with their ideas, it’s been a truly inclusive process.’

Does this mean America win? Not necessaril­y. But if they lose, at least they lose together. It’s not much, but it’s a start.

 ?? EPA ?? Glad-handing: Mickelson enjoys meeting the fans at Hazeltine
EPA Glad-handing: Mickelson enjoys meeting the fans at Hazeltine
 ??  ??

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United Kingdom