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In Defense Of Phil

(Phil Noble, Action Images/Reuters)
(Phil Noble, Action Images/Reuters)

Phil Mickelson lanced a boil late Sunday amid the smoking wreckage of America’s galling Ryder Cup defeat at the hands of the European team in Scotland.

His stinging criticism of captain Tom Watson was, in the eyes of many, heresy. But it needed to be said.


Tom Watson is a black-and-white guy who doesn’t see gray areas. That trait is why he won eight major championships and was able to “commit” to his shots on a higher percentage basis than anybody since Ben Hogan.

But as a Ryder Cup captain, this trait was stubbornness and an Achilles heel. Complicit in the wrongheadedness of his selection as captain was PGA of America president Ted Bishop, who also sees the world in black-and-white and who also doesn’t do nuance. Bishop, who loves the sound of his own voice and somehow horned his way into driving Watson’s cart during the matches, was determined to leave his mark on the Ryder Cup.

It was a black mark.

Watson, by his wife’s admission, spent hours in the shower of his home prior to the matches dressed in the U.S. team rain suit to make sure it didn’t leak. His European counterpart, Paul McGinley, spent months globetrotting, tirelessly gathering information of all kinds about his players. His best work was in getting Graeme McDowell to draw the enigmatic Victor Dubuisson out of his shell.

As the Ryder Cup week progressed Watson appeared older, less energetic, less instinctive and, at times, downright tongue-tied, falling back repeatedly on meaningless platitudes and clichés.

He was the wrong guy in the wrong place at the wrong time. And the contrast between him and the agile, thorough, smiling McGinley was stark.

The Watson defenders blame the loss on his team members, saying they should have played better.

But they missed the point by two fairways.

The question that remains unanswered is why the Americans, whose cumulative world ranking average was lower than that of the Euros, failed to produce in golf’s fiercest crucible yet again. Why do the Americans play better the rest of the year but get their heads handed to them in the Ryder Cup by Europe.

To say the captain isn’t at least partly to blame is facile and chuckleheaded.

Mickelson was brave enough to say publicly what, reportedly, others on the team also believed. He shined a light on an ugly truth. And he got hammered for it.

But if what he said was mutinous, than Tom Watson is Queeg from The Caine Mutiny.

Paul Azinger organized his U.S. Ryder Cup team in 2008 in a way that invited and produced a victory. And he did it with a group of players that included Anthony Kim, Boo Weekley, Kenny Perry, Chad Campbell and J.B. Holmes. Not a Hall of Famer in that bunch. Tiger Woods was absent with injury.

And you’re going to tell me the captain didn’t matter at Valhalla that year?

Did Mickelson violate the strict code of “Thou Shalt Not Air Dirty Laundry In Public?” Maybe.

Was his timing poor? Maybe.

Was he honest when asked a direct question? Yes.

Did his criticism of Watson’s failure to consult with his players get a big problem out in the open where it will be aired now for months? Definitely.

The U.S. Ryder Cup mission in the future will be better off for it even it Mickelson’s candor means he has self-sacrificed any chance he may have in the future of captaining the U.S. squad.

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