Lefty needs to take better care of his biting wit

It was at the 2002 Ryder Cup at The Belfry when American players mingled outside the team bus.

Lefty needs to take better care of his biting wit

Unable to stand still, Phil Mickelson retrieved a football from his bag and began having a catch with his caddie, Jim Mackay.

“What’s he doing?” US captain Curtis Strange said. “Haven’t a clue,” Tiger Woods responded.

Fourteen years later, team-mates and colleagues are still at a loss sometimes to explain the irrepressible Mickelson.

“Phil being Phil,” is pretty much standard fare, the best folks can do, and it was uttered by even 25-year-old Rickie Fowler, who had the unfortunate assignment of coming in for a press conference only moments after his countryman had given the papers their headlines for the next day.

By now, Mickelson’s “we don’t litigate against each other” comment has provided ample mileage for media corps on the eve of the 40th Ryder Cup. Hopefully, thank-you cards have been offered to Mickelson, who was clearly making fun of the legal battle between Rory McIlroy and his former management company, Horizon Sports Management, of which Graeme McDowell is a part owner.

“It was all in fun. You have to laugh at things,” Mickelson said yesterday. He went on to explain he spoke to McIlroy at Wednesday night’s gala, that the world’s No. 1 wasn’t offended by the comment, and that is was important for people to lighten up.

Good points, all of them. But here’s another: Lefty needs to take better care of his legendary biting wit, because sometimes he can be careless and cross the line of good taste.

Time will tell in this case, but surely Mickelson has had past hiccups that have haunted him.

Unforgettable, to many, is the wisecrack at the 1991 Walker Cup at Portmarnock when Mickelson disparaged Irish women. He thought that was harmless humour, too. It wasn’t. It was personal.

Go back 10 years to the 2004 Ryder Cup, as much as American may try to wipe away memories of that debacle at Oakland Hills. What dogged Mickelson all that season were comments he had made in the off-season, silliness about his chief rival, Tiger Woods, playing “inferior equipment,” and that he “hated that I flew it past him”.

Outwardly, Woods appeared unmoved by the words, though friends confirmed he thought they were out of line. Mickelson finally won a major that year, the 2004 Masters, but later in the summer he stumbled at the US Open, then the Open Championship, and there were rumours of a big change. He was let out of his Titleist contract so he could join Callaway. Much to everyone’s surprise, Mickelson chose to put some of the new equipment into play at Oakland Hills and what is cemented into Ryder Cup folklore is the fact he spent two days away from the team, on his own at other holes at the golf club practising with his new clubs and the Nike golf ball.

We discovered why when US captain Hal Sutton announced Mickelson would be paired with Woods. The left hander needed to know how Woods’ Nike ball reacted, but what couldn’t be accounted for was the way that “inferior equipment” quote circled back and bit Mickelson. The press recycled it, Woods had never appreciated it, and it proved to be a damaging attempt at wit. The super powers lost twice on the first day at Oakland Hills, the Europeans romped to an 18½-9½ victory.

They are likely hoping that the biting humour doesn’t backfire similarly this time around. Mickelson, after all, could be have been deemed to have crossed the line. The off-course lawsuit involving McIlroy and Horizon Sports Management, with McDowell caught somewhere in the middle, is clearly a serious one. Beyond the millions of dollars at stake, a friendship is strained, and there are career implications involved.

Humour? Where? If you put stock in the rumours McIlroy would not like this thing to get into court, then you can rest assured that there’s been very little laughing in the Europe locker room. Mickelson might tell you that he spoke to McIlroy and the Irishman laughed it off, but as players answered questions about the quote yesterday, it was easy to see that they treaded lightly.

No one was laughing. Nor should they have been. Court suits aren’t joking material.

Mickelson would be better served to lead with his clubs, not his attempts at humour.

- The author is a staff writer for Golfweek magazine.

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