BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- It's not a Ryder Cup until there's a
controversy, invented or otherwise. On Wednesday the stage belonged to
Phil Mickelson, who became a cause celebre by skipping a Ryder Cup
practice round while the rest of his team played nine holes at Oakland
Normally this wouldn't be that big a deal because Phil always
takes off the day before a major. The only problem is, this was two days
before a major and Phil just changed equipment, from one major brand to
another, two weeks before a competition where he would be playing not
only for himself, but his country.
In his news conference at 7:30 a.m., Mickelson said, "I could have
waited until the end of the year, but I felt that it was in my best
interests and the best interests of the team that I do this now."
drew a flurry of follow-up questions, but Phil handled them all,
explaining that last week's T-57 at the Canadian Open wasn't a true
reflection of the comfort level he's feeling with a new driver and ball.
He pointed to the final-round 68 he shot at Glen Abbey, and the
seven-plus hours of quality practice he put in on Monday at the Ryder
"For me to play my best, I have to be excited about what I
have," Mickelson said. "I am and I think that will ultimately be best for the
One thing we are constantly reminded about Phil: Expect the unexpected --
just don't expect Hal Sutton and the United States team to get caught up
in it. They've all changed equipment in their careers. They know it's
just business. They also know that Mickelson has developed a preparation game plan that has resulted in 1, 2, 3, 6 finishes in this year's major championships.
"You're reading too much into this," said Sutton. "Phil
doesn't play on Wednesdays at major championships. Now why don't you see
the positive side to that?"
Why? Because this is a Ryder Cup and thus far it's been a slow news
week. Tiger Woods hasn't broken up with Elin and he hasn't practiced in
a mock turtleneck while the rest of the team was in golf shirts. While
never forgotten by the Europeans, time has seemed to heal the wound of
the Brookline Breakdance. The PGA of America has banned alcohol on the
premises, cutting down on ugly fan behavior.
Portrayed as a bunch of
individuals, this U.S. team has bonded as well as any U.S. team. There
has been none of the bitter "War by the Shore" mentality that existed in
this rivalry a decade ago. At the Fox Theatre on Wednesday night, both
teams mixed and danced to the Pointer Sisters. They even signed
each other's menus. (There was a controversy about this in 1993, when
U.S. captain Tom Watson refused Sam Torrance's request.)
"Last time I checked, all of us play on the same tour," said Stewart
Cink, explaining the decompression. "It's not like they are all
traveling in a big van over there or anything. When a lot of guys come
over here to play, they are not spending as much time with their Ryder
Cup teammates anymore."
In other words, they're independent contractors on both sides of the
pond. That's why it's hard to publicly criticize a fiercely independent
man like Mickelson for doing it his own way. There is little loyalty in
the endorsement game, and it cuts both ways. One of Mickelson's
commercials even begs the question: "What will Phil do next?"
The answer will come on Friday, when Mickelson steps to the first tee at
Oakland Hills. He was in the midst of a career year, winning the
Masters, becoming the longest and straightest driver on the PGA Tour.
There's always a transition period when making a change, and even Woods
has switched drivers and balls in the middle of a season. But you'd
think a guy with new equipment in his bag would at least put in a little
range time. After the team photos, Phil went back to the Townsend Hotel
to rest up for the Gala Dinner.
"You know, anytime a great player like that makes a shift in equipment,
I think everybody is surprised by it," Sutton said. "You know, you can't
be upset about things like that because he's got a life that he's got to
live. He's got things he's got to answer to."
The captain wished him luck, said he saw no reason why Phil couldn't
play well with his new equipment -- equipment, by the way, that Sutton
also uses and is paid to endorse. And then he couldn't help but add, "If
he can't, well I've chosen the wrong equipment company, too."
Sutton may come across as a hard-line southern football coach, but his
guys played only nine holes on Wednesday anyway. What players have
learned with all the dinners and get-togethers is that they need to
conserve energy so that when Friday comes, they're ready. Davis Love III
said he could recall wanting to skip an entire day of Ryder Cup
practice, but never having the nerve to ask the captain if he could.
"The big topic of conversation today was the afternoon naps and how many
of us could get one in before the ceremonies," Love said.
Cink took the same position, calling Mickelson "smart" for taking the
day off. "Phil, he's bold at times, he's not afraid to make a decision
that might ruffle a few feathers. A lot of people probably wouldn't have
the guts to say, 'I'm not coming to the practice round today at the
Ryder Cup.' As Phil has shown time and time again, he has the guts to do
just about everything."
At the gala dinner on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in downtown
Detroit, Phil looked rested and relaxed. The program included a few
songs from "Golf, the Musical," and the lead to the Broadway play even
threw in a subtle shot at Phil changing clubs. Players on the United
States team slapped each other on the back and laughed. Phil put that
smile on his face, that same smile he wore walking off the 18th green at
Maybe he knows something we don't know, or maybe it's that old Phil
coming through. He'd rather hit the shot through the trees and skip it
across the water than go the conventional route.
"What will Phil do
next?" The unexpected.
Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine