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Ryder Cup Fallout: In Defense of Phil Mickelson

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Mickelson Phil1071.JPG

You've no doubt read the headlines this morning after another disappointing U.S. Ryder Cup loss:

"Mickelson Unloads on Watson"

"Phil Mickelson, Tom Watson Feud"

"Phil Mickelson Was Wrong to Rip Tom Watson"

How about this: "Phil Asked a Probing Question, Gives Honest Answer"? Because that's what happened.

In an era when whitebread golfers give politically correct, pablum-flavored non-answers, Mickelson's candor concerning what constitutes effective Ryder Cup leadership was refreshing. If the U.S. is ever going to win back the Cup, Watson's failed captaincy needs to be dissected and important lessons extracted.

Mickelson was on the last U.S. team to win the Cup — the underdog 2008 team that posted a stunning win under Paul Azinger at Valhalla — and in yesterday's presser, he was asked what worked that year. What followed has been framed as a scathing condemnation of Watson; in actuality, it was a reasoned assessment of what has worked and what hasn't, from a guy who should know.

Here's the transcript of the offending remarks:

Q. Anyone that was on the team at Valhalla, can you put your finger on what worked in 2008 and what hasn't worked since?

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Mickelson: There were two things that allow us to play our best I think that Paul Azinger did, and one was he got everybody invested in the process. He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, who -- when they would play, and they had a great leader for each pod. In my case, we had Ray Floyd, and we hung out together and we were all invested in each other's play. We were invested in picking Hunter that week; Anthony Kim and myself and Justin were in a pod, and we were involved on having Hunter be our guy to fill our pod. So we were invested in the process. And the other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us, you know, how we were going to go about doing this. How we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do, if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well, we had a real game plan. Those two things helped us bring out our best golf. And I think that, you know, we all do the best that we can and we're all trying our hardest, and I'm just looking back at what gave us the most success. Because we use that same process in The Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.

Q. That felt like a pretty brutal destruction of the leadership that's gone on this week.

Mickelson: Oh, I'm sorry you're taking it that way. I'm just talking about what Paul Azinger did to help us play our best. It's certainly -- I don't understand why you would take it that way. You asked me what I thought we should do going toward to bring our best golf out and I go back to when we played our best golf and try to replicate that formula.

Q. That didn't happen this week?

Mickelson: Uh (pausing) no. No, nobody here was in any decision. So, no.

Pardon me for not thinking of that as some sick burn of Watson, whose decision-making and demeanor were clearly questionable even to the most casual observer.

With momentum in hand on Friday, Watson benched the red-hot duo of Jordan Spieth and Patrick Reed for afternoon foursomes. On Saturday, the captain kept Mickelson and partner Keegan Bradley sidelined all day, despite Lefty's text pleadings that Watson later leaked to the press.

Watson was also quick to deride the players for their failures, and while it's true that the captain doesn't hit a shot, an effective leader deflects blame from players and absorbs the arrows himself.

Mickelson, who went 2-1 at this Ryder Cup and won his singles match against local hero Stephen Gallacher, could be forgiven for a little frustration. And while it was indelicate of him to criticize Watson while sharing the dais with him, that doesn't negate the accuracy of his statements.

Mickelson has earned his stature in the game. He has 42 PGA Tour wins — four more than Watson — and his five majors have come during an era when Tiger Woods has gobbled up major wins like Lefty gobbles In-N-Out burgers. Watson, on the other hand, had his major ascendancy during Jack Nicklaus' twilight years. Mickelson has earned his way onto every Ryder Cup team since 1995 on merits, without a captain's pick in the bunch. Granted, he hasn't always played well, but he's certainly not alone in that fact. Mickelson's all-time Ryder Cup match record of 16-19-6 looks mediocre on its face, but it outshines Woods' record of 13-17-3 and is merely symptomatic of American futility in the event. For comparison's sake, Jim Furyk, whose Cup experience coincides with much of Phil's, has a 10-20-4 ledger.

I'm as big a Watson fan as anyone — his run at the 2009 British Open was one of the most thrilling performances in the game's history — but his captaincy was clearly a disaster. The forum might have made Mickelson's observations a little awkward and hard to digest, but he wasn't wrong.