Ryder Cup validation for Mickelson comes at Hazeltine

Phil Mickelson went 2-1-1 this past week for Team USA at the Ryder Cup. Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

CHASKA, Minn. -- There have been times when Phil Mickelson was accused of not caring about the Ryder Cup. Whether it was the changing of golf equipment on the eve of the 2004 matches, or a horrific singles loss to Wales' Phillip Price in 2002 or simply his overall losing record, detractors had plenty of fodder.

There is substantial evidence to the contrary, but if you are looking for one perfect example, it was that rather dubious celebratory leap Mickelson took Sunday on the 18th green at Hazeltine National, where he had just holed an 18-foot birdie putt.

It was reminiscent of Mickelson's jump on the 18th green at Augusta National in 2004, when his birdie putt on the final green barely squeaked into the cup, assuring him his first major title at the Masters.

The Ryder Cup is not a major championship, but it is nonetheless filled with the pressure-packed moments that mark the biggest individual tournaments in the game. Mickelson has seen it all, and he seemed to want that putt Sunday as much as he wanted anything in the game.

"It's a very emotional deal, and the putt on the last hole, I wasn't sure if it would hang in there," said Mickelson, who mocked his own celebration. "I just kind of dropped down to my knees and when it went in, just that excitement propelled me up. Usually, I need a little assistance."

It was his 10th birdie of the day, and not even Sergio Garcia matching him with a birdie of his own to assure a tie could take away from the moment. At 46, in what might very well have been Mickelson's last Ryder Cup as a player, he performed at an extraordinary level, delivering a half point at a time Sunday when it seemed it might very well be needed.

In the end, the United States cruised to a 17-11 victory over Europe, putting an end to a run of defeats that caused such frustration that Mickelson lashed out at the system, and captain Tom Watson, two years ago in Scotland.

"All of this has been exhausting," Amy Mickelson, Phil's wife, said on the course Sunday while following the match along with their two daughters and son. "I'm so closer to it and see what has been going on, and I know some tough things had to happen. But I've seen such a difference for these guys, and all these young guys have been great, they've been so invested."

Mickelson would never say he has been vindicated, but it certainly would not have looked good had the U.S. lost and he played poorly. The U.S. won and Mickelson went 2-1-1, as his halved match against Garcia produced some of the best golf of the week.

Four of Lefty's 10 birdies came within the last five holes. Not to be outdone, Garcia birdied the last four. Between them they had 19 birdies and just a single bogey. Both players shot 63 on their own ball. It was fitting that their match ended in a tie.

"With all he had on him coming into the week ... yeah, it was incredible for him to perform like that," said Jim "Bones" Mackay, Mickelson's longtime caddie.

There was Mickelson's takedown of Watson two years ago at Gleneagles, which led to a serious look at the way the Americans had been approaching the Ryder Cup.

Mickelson long believed that continuity and putting the players in the best position to win, but eliminating some of the outside factors that go into the Ryder Cup, was the best way forward. A task force was formed, and although the concept has been ridiculed, it produced a new unity.

"The pressure started when some dumbass opened his mouth two years ago in the media center," said Mickelson, whose move at the time has since been deemed to be calculated as a way to force change.

Gone are volunteer presidents of the PGA of America picking U.S. captains. Now, there is a succession plan in place, one that would be easy to predict. Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker, Mickelson and Tiger Woods can all be penciled in as future captains. All were here at Hazeltine this week.

Mickelson was so involved that he was jokingly referred to as the team's de facto captain, even though the official role was held by Davis Love III, who received vindication after the crushing 14½ to 13½ defeat against Europe four years ago at Medinah, where the Americans blew a 4-point lead on the final day.

"[Mickelson] put himself out there, no doubt,'' said Rickie Fowler, one of Love's at-large selections and a player who Mickelson lobbied for extensively behind the scenes. "He was under pressure just to make the team on points. And when we played that first match [on Friday], he knew how much pressure was on him, not just the pressure he put on himself but from people on the outside looking in."

Mickelson and Fowler earned a victory over Rory McIlroy and Andy Sullivan in foursomes. They would lose on Saturday morning against McIlroy and Thomas Pieters, but when Mickelson went back out in the afternoon with Matt Kuchar, he helped deliver a four-ball victory over Garcia and Martin Kaymer.

That set up the Sunday showdown against Garcia, who has been money in so many Ryder Cups. Garcia was just 1-2-2 this time, but he nonetheless left Minnesota with a 19-11-7 record in eight Ryder Cup appearances.

Mickelson fell behind when Garcia birdied the first, but there was never more than a 1-hole difference the rest of the way. At both the 17th and 18th holes, with the match tied, Garcia hit his approach inside of Mickelson, who nonetheless made the putt -- only to see Garcia tie him. It was reminiscent of Mickelson's golf in July at Royal Troon, where he went shot for shot with Henrik Stenson, shooting a final-day 65 without a bogey but finishing runner-up.

"You kind of get in the moment and get dialed into that one shot and seem to get the best out of it," Mickelson said. "It kind of happened for four days at the British [The Open] and it happened today. It'll be great to kind of build on it in the offseason."

It is good to hear Mickelson talk that way, as if it's no big deal to be thinking about a new year in golf. He has been a pro for more than 24 years, but had his coach, Andrew Getson, here this week to help him work on his game and build to the future.

And really, that's what this entire Ryder Cup endeavor has been for Mickelson. Not about winning this year, although that was an added benefit, but building a foundation that will put the Americans in position to do this again.

It took guts for Mickelson to say that the system was flawed. That led to change. But ultimately, playing good golf solves a lot of problems, and there was Mickelson on Sunday, playing as well as anyone in an effort to help the Americans win back the Ryder Cup.