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Why Ryder Cup pressure is especially high for Phil Mickelson

CHASKA, Minn. -- The method will undoubtedly be questioned, as it was two years ago at a Gleneagles news conference where you couldn't thaw the ice with a blow torch. Another chill filled the air as Phil Mickelson spoke Wednesday at Hazeltine National.

The World Golf Hall of Famer has been blunt about the U.S. Ryder Cup shortfalls, making clear in the aftermath of the 2014 defeat that changes were needed to promote success. Mickelson also took the controversial step of criticizing then-captain Tom Watson in front of the world.

On Wednesday, Mickelson took Hal Sutton to task for a 12-year-old simmering annoyance of being paired with Tiger Woods for two sessions at Oakland Hills in 2004, using it to illustrate his point.

"That's an example of starting with the captain that put us in a position to fail, and we failed monumentally, absolutely," Mickelson said. "But to say you just need to play better; that is so misinformed because you will play how you prepare."

Mickelson, 46, seemingly has a lot at stake when the 41st Ryder Cup begins Friday at Hazeltine.

He put himself front and center as the man who pushed for and got significant change in the U.S. Ryder Cup structure, with his critical comments at Gleneagles followed by the launch of a task force that chose Davis Love III as the captain and set forth a plan that will be in place for years to come.

If that is putting any extra pressure on Mickelson to perform, he isn't showing it.

"In my 20 years, this is the first time that we are actually involved in the decision-making process," Mickelson said. "And the decisions we are accountable for every single year, we now have involvement in those decisions, and that gives us a whole platform to work forward.

"This is the foundation week for us. This is the week where all the past captains, past vice captains, PGA of America officials have had involvement in the decision-making process. And from this, we'll work forward and keep continuity into 2018 and from that we'll build on in 2020."

Mickelson made no secret of his distaste for the old process in the aftermath of his eighth Ryder Cup defeat in 10 tries two years ago, when the U.S. lost 16½ to 11½ and he butted heads with Watson.

Afterward, Mickelson wondered why the U.S. had strayed from the winning formula it had used in 2008, when captain Paul Azinger implemented a pods system with heavy input from the players.

Watson ruled in a heavy-handed manner, which might have worked for him in 1993 but failed miserably two years ago -- when he got his second crack at the captain's job after having not been part of any Ryder Cup in the intervening years. And he was picked by former PGA president Ted Bishop with no input from the players.

And while it seemed in bad form to be so openly harsh -- even indirectly -- toward Watson, the prevailing wisdom has been that Mickelson made a bold move and was willing to take the heat to bring change.

"I think he knew the only way it would get the attention that it needed was to say it then and there," said a source who was privy to the inner workings of the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team. "In '08, there was a plan and I think everybody knew exactly what [was happening] for the entire week. Other times it's been more fly by the seat of your pants.

"You can boil it down to play better or make more putts. But what Phil was getting at was it's easier to prepare and spend all your energy on your golf game. I think Phil and others felt they spent a lot of energy trying to figure out what you're going to do. That uncertainty takes energy away from you."

That is exactly what Mickelson referenced Wednesday as it applied to the 2004 Ryder Cup and his pairing with Woods. Mickelson and Woods were not told about the plan for them to play together until two days prior. Mickelson said he had difficulty hitting the golf ball Woods uses, hence he spent considerable time figuring that out, neglecting other parts of his game.

Two years ago, there were instances of pairings by Watson in which the players had not practiced together.

Those are just a few of the examples over the years that rankled Mickelson.

"I think it took a lot of guts for Phil to do that, and he took a bit of a hit for it," the source said. "That was Phil saying, 'I really care about the Ryder Cup and I'm tired of us losing.' "

Mickelson was part of the 11-member task force that set out to change the losing ways and build toward the future.

But he has long admitted that, ultimately, playing better will be the key. Although Mickelson has gone 5-2 in the past two Ryder Cups -- in losing efforts -- his overall record of 16-19-6 has often been cited as a reason the Americans have underperformed.

"Phil is going to tell you how it is. He's going to come up to each and every person and tell them something that he really appreciates and likes about their game and how confident he is in how they are going to play that week. It's a great feeling, and it does give you an extra level of confidence."
Jordan Spieth

Mickelson, however, is not alone. Most of the top players on the American side have losing records, including Jim Furyk and Woods. All have had numerous partners in the team matches, a factor cited in the failure to build consistency or continuity.

"Phil is going to tell you how it is," Jordan Spieth said. "He's going to come up to each and every person and tell them something that he really appreciates and likes about their game and how confident he is in how they are going to play that week. It's a great feeling, and it does give you an extra level of confidence. He sets high expectations for this team, just like our captains do, and they should."

Almost to a man, the players enjoy Mickelson's company. They love his stories, appreciate his needling, appreciate how he attempts to bring out the best in them. Even Woods, who has become friendlier with Mickelson over time, has been in constant communication with his longtime rival over the past few weeks in his role as a vice captain, strategizing over pairings.

"When Phil gets up to speak, he obviously has a purpose when he says something," Love said. "He's not winging it. He's been a team leader I'd say the last six or eight teams I've been around. He's been a leader on the golf course or in the locker room or in the team room."

Mickelson took the unusual step last week at the Tour Championship of switching driver shafts so he could hit the ball farther this week at Hazeltine. The move hurt him in the short term during the lucrative Tour Championship, causing him to struggle as he adjusted.

Lefty didn't care. He noted that he had already won two Tour Championships, that the Ryder Cup was his main goal. He spent a good bit of time trying to make the situation better.

Perhaps the biggest thing he can do now? Set an example by playing well.