MEDINAH, Ill. — Phil Mickelson wants to pad his record, get as many points as he can.
On the ping pong table, that is.
When it comes to the Ryder Cup, Mickelson has become the Americans’ “glue guy.”
“He’s a lot like Tiger. They both came on to the teams trying to win a whole bunch of points. They thought that’s what they were supposed to do,” U.S. captain Davis Love III said Wednesday.
“Now they just want to win.”
The evolution of Mickelson has helped the Americans become more, well, European. It’s no secret the Americans haven’t always played well with each other, unable to set aside the individual mindsets that make them so successful on the PGA Tour. The U.S. has just one victory in the last five Ryder Cups, and two in the last eight.
Mickelson, the most experienced of the Americans having played every Ryder Cup since 1995, is 11-17-6. The 2002 Ryder Cup is the last time he won more than one match.
But even the Europeans say this U.S. team seems like a particularly close-knit bunch, and Mickelson — along with fellow veterans Woods and Jim Furyk — deserve some of the credit.
“I can’t tell you how many times both Tiger and Phil have said, ‘Whatever you want us to do, we’ll do it,’ ” Love said. “Phil gets it, and he knows what to say at the right time. He knows when to be serious and give his strategy theories, and he knows when to make a joke and have fun. He and (rookie Brandt Snedeker) have been going back and forth all week, and they’re having a great time and he’s pulled Brandt in.
“He’s great. They’re just great. I love being around them,” Love said, growing emotional.
It didn’t just start this week, either.
For the last few years, Mickelson has made a point of singling out promising young players for money games during practice rounds. The “Phil matches” aren’t just for his amusement — though few people can talk smack quite like Lefty — but to get the up-and-comers ready for the big time. He simulates match play conditions, pushes them to go for high-risk shots, yaps at them to test their concentration.
And because Mickelson draws a crowd everywhere he goes, he gives the youngsters a look at what it’s like to play in the glare of the spotlight.
“The idea is, I want guys playing match play and getting ready for Ryder Cups and Presidents Cups,” Mickelson said last year. “I haven’t said this to the guys, but that was my thinking when I started playing these matches. And if you’ll notice, most of them are young guys who one day are going to be representing the U.S.”
Among the practice group alums? Keegan Bradley, who won the PGA Championship last year and is now a Ryder Cup rookie.
“Playing with Phil helps me every week,” Bradley said. “I’ve always played very well after I’ve played in a `Phil match’ because he gets your juices flowing, you start putting balls into the hole. ... Without a doubt, he’s prepared me for this moment with these matches.”
The mentoring goes beyond the course, too.
Ask anyone about the team room, and Mickelson’s name invariably comes up. He talked of his and Woods’ dominance on the ping pong table Wednesday, boasting that few of their U.S. teammates can touch them.
“Put us together on that table, and we’re rocking it,” Mickelson said.
(That’s only partly true, Steve Stricker said. Matt Kuchar is actually the Roger Federer of the U.S. ping pong table, and Stricker said Mickelson is putting off that matchup until Sunday. “He doesn’t want to get any bad mojo going before the tournament starts.”)
Those games, the bragging, the trash talking, it all helps make the newcomers feel comfortable, make them feel as if they’re part of the team.
“He’s taken on that role of being the guy that anybody can come to and ask anything. Any sort of advice,” Stricker said. “He’s very approachable, and makes you feel at ease and very fun to be around.”
A four-time major champion, Mickelson’s legacy in golf is secure. But as he gets older — he turned 42 in June — events like the Ryder Cup take on even greater importance.
Of his eight Ryder Cup appearances, only two have ended with the Americans celebrating.
“I’ve realized over time how much I look forward to these events, how much I love the Ryder Cup, how much I love being a part of the team and how much I want to play and compete,” Mickelson said.
“These are some of the most special weeks throughout a career,” he added. “They’re something that careers are defined by. And, also, they’re the weeks where relationships are formed that last a lifetime.”
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