Ever since Phil Mickelson’s diatribe against Tom Watson, America’s Ryder Cup players have observed a collective code of omerta over their Gleneagles hiding.
But Rickie Fowler, their brightest young star, who this year joined Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus as only the third player ever to finish inside the top five at all four majors, decided yesterday to break rank.
After an ugly six-week fall-out that has witnessed the savaging of captain Tom Watson’s reputation, not to mention the firing of PGA of America president Ted Bishop for his “li’l girl” jibe at Ian Poulter, Fowler felt the time was right to defend a grandee of the game with some thinly-veiled criticism of Mickelson. Having shared his team-mates’ unease at the five-time major champion’s excoriation of Watson in the middle of a press conference, he said: “The unfortunate part, I believe, is that stuff that happens in the team room should stay there.
“I thought Tom did a great job of talking to the guys. He had been there plenty of times, and I enjoyed the time I got to spend with him. I respect him, he is a legend within the game. Some things may have got blown a little bit out of proportion. But obviously we didn’t play as well as we needed to in order to win.”
Fowler, who maintained his remarkable form this season by moving within three shots of Graeme McDowell’s lead here at the HSBC Champions at Sheshan, represents the US Ryder Cup future. He has even been included alongside Woods and Mickelson on an 11-man panel to decide the best strategy of captaincy for the next match at Hazeltine, Minnesota, in 2016, in a desperate effort to halt the Americans’ record of losing six of the last seven instalments.
“I am looking forward to getting together with the guys to see what everyone has to say,” the 25-year-old Californian said. “Clearly, we want to win the Cup, and it is not as if there has been a lack of motivation or anything like that. It sucks losing. Everyone is aware of that and everyone wants to win.”
The trouble is that the US have experienced a few too many false dawns on this front. Watson was specifically appointed by Bishop to bring discipline and rigour, and ended up alienating the team’s most senior player by this authoritarian approach. This time, the received wisdom is that the charge at Hazeltine should be led by youthful gunslingers like Billy Horschel, controversially overlooked for a place at Gleneagles despite holding off Rory McIlroy to win the £6.2million FedEx Cup prize. Except Horschel looked less like the wonderhorse-in-waiting yesterday than a lame donkey, as a wretched third round of 79 left him washed up at 20 over par.
The European surge, however, showed no signs of slowing. Graeme McDowell has been a consummate front-runner in Shanghai all week, apparently rejuvenated by his dramatic Ryder Cup singles victory over Jordan Spieth as well as his recent fatherhood. The Northern Irishman acted like the model of composure last night, claiming he was “very relaxed” about his chance of closing out a maiden World Golf Championship title to add to his 2010 US Open triumph at Pebble Beach.
It helped, evidently, that his closest challenger was the unheralded Hiroshi Iwata, ranked 134th in the world and a golfer of whose talents he was blissfully unaware. “Never heard of him,” he said, at the mention of the man from Miyagi. “No disrespect intended.”
McDowell recognised that the greater threat lurked in the form of Martin Kaymer, two shots back, who won here in 2011 with a peerless closing round of 63. Were it not for the prodigious feats of McIlroy, the German could make a legitimate argument for ‘player of the year’ status, having brilliantly resurrected his game to achieve glory at both the US Open and Players’ Championship. A second win at ‘Asia’s major’ would signify a stunning coup de grâce.
Kaymer has cut a more contented figure this season, dispelling the mistaken impressions of a Teutonic android that arose when rose to the world No 1 ranking three years ago. It helps, too, that he has combined his intensely competitive nature with a commitment to spend more time with his family.
Whereas he has spent the past seven Christmases in solitude at his Phoenix base, preparing meticulously for the golfing year to come, he will be enjoying this one back home in Düsseldorf.
Until then, Kaymer promised that he would not deviate from his ambition not just here in China but in his two remaining tournaments in Turkey and Dubai, even though the gap to Rory McIlroy at the top of the European order of merit was too large to bridge. “This has been a great year at the big tournaments, but not apart from that,” he said. “I haven’t been consistent enough. It’s important that every Thursday when I stand up on the first tee, I want to win.”