Monday 14 October 2019

Comment: Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson create team in their own image - which is why it doesn't work


Team USA's (left-right): Brooks Koepka, Bryson Decahmbeau, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau. Photo: PA
Team USA's (left-right): Brooks Koepka, Bryson Decahmbeau, Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson and Tony Finau. Photo: PA

Jonathan Liew

In November, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson will play a one-on-one, winner-takes-all, $9 million showdown in Las Vegas. This was not a good weekend for business.

Golf's two most storied names produced a total of no wins and six defeats in the Ryder Cup. Mickelson now has more losses than any other player in the competition's history, with 22 in total. Woods is one behind him, in second place.

"I'm one of the contributing factors to why we lost the cup," Woods admitted. "And it's not a lot of fun."

And as they plodded unhappily around Le Golf National, the afternoon and the cup slipping away, it was hard not to feel that in some sense we were witnessing the end of an era in America's Ryder Cup history. Woods will be 44 at Whistling Straits in 2020. Mickelson will be 50, an age beyond which only Ray Floyd (1993) and Jay Haas (2004) have competed. It's not impossible that one or both could make it.

But whether or not they do, their legacy in this competition is largely already secure.

Their failure may be shared - 19 Major championships combined, and yet a foursomes and fourball record of 22 wins and 35 defeats between them - but the reasons behind it are subtly different. Woods has both the greater case to answer and the greater mitigation.

By Whistling Straits, it will have been 21 years since he played for a winning US team. But equally, he may be a victim of his own phenomenal talent.

Research by Brandel Chamblee of the Golf Channel shows that players paired with Woods on the Saturday or Sunday of tour events play almost three shots worse in his company.

At one point during the US press conference, as Jim Furyk was nattering away, Woods allowed his eyes to gently close for a few seconds. He looked shattered.

He looked shattered for most of the weekend. He has played seven weeks out of nine, starting with the Open Championship, followed by the WGC, followed by the US PGA, followed by the FedEx Cup play-off series. And then a Ryder Cup. Small wonder it had taken its toll.

Woods was not the only player to endure this schedule, of course. But having spent so long out of the game with injury, coupled with the emotional toil of winning his first tournament in five years at East Lake, and the simple strain of being the game's most recognisable star, it was always going to be a big ask.

"A lot of big events, and a lot of focus, a lot of energy goes into it," he said. "I'll have a better understanding of what my training needs to be for next year."

Mickelson, on the other hand, had the reverse problem. He's the sort of guy you can pair with anybody.

Except there was one problem: he couldn't drive for oatmeal.

And so this defeat hit Mickelson particularly hard: not just because he felt he had let himself down, but because he had let down Furyk, a close friend and confidant.

Mickelson was an integral part of the task force set up in the wake of that defeat, and which enjoyed such success at Hazeltine two years ago. And so his responsibility for America's failure in France goes deeper than his performance as a player. In part, it was a defeat of which he was the architect.

The putative role of the task force was to return power to the players.

In truth, it was a sort of palace coup, concentrating power in a small handful of players: Woods, Mickelson, Davis Love III and their immediate circle, including the likes of Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tom Lehman.

The fact that most of these names were closely associated with the 2002-2014 era, the most ignominious in America's Ryder Cup history, wasn't even the main issue.

Furyk's decision to give Mickelson a wildcard epitomised this. On one hand, Mickelson's form was indifferent, the course was poorly suited to him, and on a set-up that prioritised straight hitting, a man who was No 192 in the PGA Tour's driving accuracy statistics this year didn't really leap out as an obvious pick.

But of course, Mickelson had played a pivotal role in appointing Furyk to the job in the first place.

This is what Patrick Reed meant yesterday when he referred to decisions being made by a "buddy system" within the US team - a small group of senior players including Woods and Mickelson, in league with the team management.

They've managed to remake America's Ryder Cup team in their own image: the present embodiment of a past legacy that - and we're being exceptionally generous here - has produced largely mixed results. (© Independent News Service)

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