Jack Nicklaus, after all, is not only the greatest and most sporting champion the game has ever known, but he is owed a massive amount of credit for the stage on which this international team event is played out. If McIlroy, the game’s best player, leaned in and said: “Thank you,” it not only would have been a classy thing to do, it would have been well-deserved.
Nicklaus, to refresh memories, thought this biennial affair was a bit too lopsided as a United States v Great Britain & Ireland deal back in the 1960s and ’70s. Invite Europe, Nicklaus suggested to British golf czar Lord John Darby, and when a player of his stature says something, you not only listen, you act.
The Europeans joined in 1979 and in 1985 the Americans lost the Ryder Cup for the first time since 1957. Then they lost in 1987 and in 1989 the Euros earned a tie to keep the cup for a third straight time.
What was lost in the enthusiasm of yet another European triumph yesterday, 16½-11½, at Gleneagles, was whether McIlroy, playing the role of Nicklaus, leaned into the American version of Lord Darby — let’s say, Ted Bishop, the emperor of the PGA of America — and whispered: “Have you thought of inviting Australia?”
It perhaps has come to that, because the Americans have lost eight of the last 10 and what will echo back home, from the shores of the Atlantic to the edge of the Pacific is this bewilderment: “What in the name of Arnold Palmer is wrong with us?”
Jim Furyk, nine times a Ryder Cup participant, but only twice a winner, pondered the question only minutes after losing his singles match to Sergio Garcia, 1 up. The pain of losing yet again, the insufferable agony of standing amid crescendos of “Ole, ole ole ole, ole,” the football victory song, the feeling of another groundhog day... well, it would have been understandable had Furyk just walked away.
But he is a model professional, a man of character, and so Furyk said he had no answers. “If it was that easy to fix it, believe me, I promise I would,” he said. What he did next speaks volumes to Furyk’s dignity. The oldest member of the US team praised his captain, Tom Watson, and said the man made all the right moves.
Told that Watson had said Saturday night that “it’s up to the actors to go out there and act [but] they haven’t acted well enough to get that standing ovation at the end of the last two Ryder Cups,” Furyk nodded.
He agreed, because Furyk is above making excuses or pointing fingers at a captain. Furyk knew that had he played better, he would have beaten Garcia, and he wouldn’t have gone 1-3 in this competition, that he wouldn’t own a career record of 2-8-1 in fourballs. That’s on him. He prefers to keep it there.
Sadly, Phil Mickelson went in another direction. He put this loss on Watson. Ouch.
Clearly, the most experienced Ryder Cupper in American history (10 teams), Mickelson is sick of losing (he’s been on just two winning teams), and being benched for an entire day Saturday at Gleneagles had to sting. No one is saying he shouldn’t be hurt, but to suggest that had Watson adopted Paul Azinger’s 2008 philosophy — putting like-personalities in a “pod” system and letting them run themselves — was totally unnecessary.
Strolling down memory lane to 2008, the most recent of the two times that Mickelson has been on a winning team, the left-hander glowed about Azinger. “He got everybody invested,” Mickelson said. “He had a great game plan for us,” he added. “We have strayed from [that] winning formula,” he insisted.
Wow. Wow. And wow.
Haymakers from the far end of the interview room directed at Watson — an eight-time Major winner, a five-time Open champion, an iconic figure who, whether you liked the way he captained or not, has earned more respect than he was extended.
The 65-year-old Hall of Famer sat in the middle of the table, forced-smile on his face as Phil cut loose. He deserved better.
“That felt like a pretty brutal description of the leadership that’s gone on this week,” said a reporter, to Mickelson. “I’m sorry you’re taking it that way,” Mickelson said, but good gracious how else to take it? He had thrown the captain under the proverbial bus.
“I’m surprised he came out and said that,” Graeme McDowell said.
Not to discredit the American victory in 2008, but Mickelson overlooks a massive component of that week: European captain Nick Faldo.
Forget Azinger’s “pod” system, Faldo’s massive miscues that week spelled disaster for the visitors at Valhalla and yet the European players never sat there as Mickelson did and blamed Faldo.
Why? McDowell said: “The captain doesn’t hit the shot or make the putts. Too much is put on the captain.”
Unfortunately, Mickelson added even more last night.