Right or wrong, Mickelson forces Ryder changes

Nearly a week after the final putt dropped at the 40th Ryder Cup in Scotland, the competition continues for a battered and beaten American team. Only this time it’s not about birdies and bogeys but setting the record straight regarding dissension and turmoil.

PGA of America officials released a statement Saturday night from captain Tom Watson, who said, “In hindsight, whatever mistakes that were made were mine. I take complete and full responsibility for them.”

He further said that he had spoken with Phil Mickelson, who leveled criticism toward the captain’s style at a post-tournament press conference.

“I completely understand his reaction in the moment,” Watson said. “I had an open and candid conversation with him and it ended with a better understanding of each other’s perspective.”

Though there was tension in the air after the recent loss at Gleneagles and the following days were filled with stories of discontent, the Watson statement seems to be in response to a story that surfaced Saturday night. According to, Watson ridiculed his players after being whacked, 3 1/2 – 1/2 for a second straight day in afternoon foursomes to account for a 10-6 deficit, and turned a feel-good bonding session into a tense, ugly scene.

While Watson in his statement seemed to agree with critics that he communicated poorly with his players, he insisted that “my words may have made the players feel that I didn’t appreciate their commitment and dedication to winning the Ryder Cup.”

According to the ESPN story, Watson “scoffed” at the team’s gift to him, a replica of the Ryder Cup signed by all 12 team members. Two sources who were present said it didn’t happen quite that way.

Said one: “He accepted the gift and said, ‘Thank you.’ It was sincere. But as he walked away, he stopped and said something like, ‘But I don’t want this one; I want the real Ryder Cup.’ I guess it was his way of pumping us up, at least in his mind, but it was 100 percent Tom being Tom. It came off as being a little disrespectful, but I don’t think he meant it to be. But I guess some people saw it that way.”

The other source added, “He meant to put the emphasis on how important it was to win the Ryder Cup. It was bad, but it wasn’t harsh. He de-emphasized the gift but emphasized the real Ryder Cup.”

As for allegations that Watson ridiculed European players, a source didn’t see it that way. “All he knows is his way, and he probably thinks you can’t win if you offer too much respect to the opposition.” Told that Watson in 1993 famously insulted Sam Torrance, a competitor on the European team, by not letting the American team autograph a menu because they had come to win a golf tournament, not make friends, the source laughed.

“See, he hasn’t changed. He’s Tom, but in this case he was the wrong man for the job.”

If Jim Furyk, who as the oldest member of the team and a nine-time Ryder Cupper presented the gift to Watson, had been offended, he hid it well. The next day, after Europe’s 16 1/2 – 11 1/2 triumph, the Europeans’ third straight and eighth in the past 10 Ryder Cups, Furyk was diplomatic, even as tension surfaced.

“I have a lot of respect for our captain,” Furyk said. “I know he put his heart and soul into it for two years. He worked his ass off to try to provide what he thought would be the best opportunity for us.”

At the time, Furyk had been asked to respond to stinging criticism by Phil Mickelson leveled at Watson’s management style. Without directly condemning Watson, Mickelson, playing in his 10th Ryder Cup, said that players weren’t involved in any team decisions and that Paul Azinger “had a game plan” in 2008, the last time the Americans won.

The insinuation was that Watson didn’t have a firm grip on things, that he didn’t have a game plan. Furyk wasn’t about to pick sides. “I don’t think it’s wise for either one of us to be pitted in the middle of that. I respect both of those gentlemen.”

Unfortunately, what sits at the heart of this mess is this: Neither Watson nor Mickelson extended much respect to each other, when both deserved it.

Watson clearly didn’t embrace Mickelson, a passionate Ryder Cupper and 44-year-old veteran. Players wondered aloud why Mickelson, even when he sat outside the qualifying line to make the team, had never been taken aside and told that he’d have a crucial role for the Americans, that he didn’t have to worry about making the team. European captain Paul McGinley had virtually done that with Ian Poulter, Graeme McDowell and Lee Westwood, “so why be so disrespectful to Phil? Hadn’t he earned more respect?” said one source.

Once at Gleneagles after having qualified on his own merit, Mickelson still never seemed to be embraced by Watson. Like everyone else on the team, Mickelson wondered where things were going – and they changed constantly. Matt Kuchar thought he was going to play team games with Jordan Spieth, yet he sat out the first session and then played with three different partners: Jim Furyk, Bubba Watson (with whom he hadn’t practiced) and Zach Johnson. Hunter Mahan practiced with Johnson, then got tossed in alongside Furyk, which prompted a furious set of phone calls to manufacturers to help each player know the attributes of the other man’s golf ball (Mahan plays a Titleist Pro V1x, Furyk a Callaway SR3). Spieth and Patrick Reed thought they would play Friday foursomes after winning in four-balls, only to be benched.

But the biggest shock was delivered by Watson in two-part harmony. Friday night, he told Mickelson and his hand-picked partner, Keegan Bradley, that they would sit out Saturday morning four-balls. They had beaten Rory McIlroy and Sergio Garcia in that format Friday morning, but apparently Watson didn’t think they played well, then he apparently became disgusted with the way Mickelson and Bradley got beaten by Graeme McDowell and Victor Dubuisson, 3 and 2, in afternoon foursomes.

“Phil wasn’t happy, but he understood,” said a source.

The second half of the Watson shock? It came Saturday morning, and Mickelson didn’t understand this one at all. Watson met Mickelson, Bradley and Simpson in the lunchroom and told them that they would be on the bench for the afternoon foursomes, too. (It meant that Simpson, who had played in Friday morning’s four-balls, would sit out three straight sessions and play just twice in this Ryder Cup.)

Several sources said the news was enough of a blow to Mickelson, Bradley and Simpson; what made it worse was how blunt Watson was, disparaging the way the three of them had played Friday. To Mickelson, the captain had crossed the line.

“Phil’s a leader,” said a source who was in the locker room all week. “His fatherhood came out. He’s a protector. He was angry with the way Watson had talked to Keegan and Webb.”

The anger percolated all day Saturday as Mickelson roamed the Centenary Course, cheering on his teammates. In the locker room that night, Mickelson never addressed Watson, nor did he face his captain, but he reportedly spoke about each of his 11 teammates. Sources said it was a heartfelt talk, and others felt similarly.

“I’ve taken to heart what he said (that) night for 18 years,” Furyk said.

Mickelson may have bottled his anger enough to beat Stephen Gallacher, 3 and 1, to improve his singles record to 5-5, but it returned at the post-tournament news conference, albeit in a controlled, deliberate assessment of things. Invoking the name of Azinger and how “he got everybody invested in the process” and how players knew “how we were going to go about doing this,” Mickelson was at his calculating best, delivering crunching criticism to Watson without mentioning the captain’s name.

Coming in the heat of yet another loss, it smacked of sour grapes to many and violated the sanctity of the age-old team philosophy: What happens in the locker room stays in the locker room.

But unlike the match against Europe, which was an emphatic defeat, the case against Mickelson is not so decisive. Not even team members can agree.

“Watson didn’t communicate, and he didn’t listen to his vice captains,” said one source. “He was disrespectful (to players), but it wasn’t the time or place for Phil. Two wrongs don’t make a right.”

Yet another source took another view. “If Phil did this in private, if he said it to Watson’s face, to (PGA of America president) Ted Bishop’s face, no changes would be made. The U.S. would continue to go down the same alley.”

The PGA of America soon will release a statement, separate from the Watson statement: no decision will be made on the 2016 captain for several months and that plans first will be put into motion to form a committee that will decide on future captains. That would seem to indicate that Mickelson’s bold and aggressive move could serve a positive purpose going forward.

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