Phil Mickelson is the master of the premeditated putdown.
Behind that airbrushed ‘Mr America’ sheen lurks a distinct Machiavellian streak, the type of calculating instinct to provoke that informed his jibe on Wednesday at Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, claiming that the United States team were more united because they “don’t litigate against each other”.
It was a side of Mickelson rarely glimpsed amid all the grinning, cap‑doffing charm, but the de facto leader of the American team room knew exactly what he was doing.
It sounded like a pointed, preconceived barb, almost as if he felt that in the cloying diplomacy of Ryder Cup preamble, a few fires needed starting. The remark was, in a sense, typical of him. For few of his fans realise that throughout his career, he has been an incorrigible smart aleck.
In 2009, the ice between Mickelson and Tiger Woods, who at many tournaments had barely been able to look at one another, was beginning to thaw.
Mickelson’s wife, Amy, had just been diagnosed with breast cancer, and he was sincerely grateful for the support from his contemporaries, from whatever source. Even Woods, then still with Elin Nordegren, sent a text message of solidarity.
The exchange is understood to have read as follows: TW: Elin and I wanted to let you know that you and Amy are in our thoughts.
PM: That’s very kind, thank you.
TW: Hopefully they will soon find a cure.
PM: Yes, thanks for that. And hopefully they’ll soon find a cure for your hook.
Just like that, the relationship between Woods and his nemesis was back to square one, Tiger’s best intentions fired back at him with a clever but withering retort about his game.
This, then, is Mickelson’s modus operandi off the course as well as on: to wait, espy an area of weakness, and pounce. It was surely no coincidence that the target of his sarcasm on Wednesday was McIlroy, who only three weeks earlier had raised eyebrows by arguing that Mickelson and Woods were “getting into the last few holes” of their career.
Mickelson understood that the Europeans were sensitive about the legal proceedings between their two Northern Irish players, brought about by McIlroy’s decision to sue his former management company, Horizon, who until this summer also represented McDowell.
Paul McGinley had demonstrated as much, claiming desperately that tension between the pair had “never been an issue in my captaincy”, while indicating that he would try to keep the two apart in the pairings.
So, Mickelson chose to bring some mischievous team-room joviality into the interview area, airing some of the dirty laundry that Europe would rather keep buried. On the podium he was only too aware of the fusillade he had fired. “Ouch,” Michael Gibbons, the European Tour press officer, said.
“I couldn’t resist,” Mickelson replied. “Sorry.”
Truth be told, Mickelson is not in much of a position to throw stones from a glass house on this issue, since he has been involved in plenty of legal wrangling himself of late.
Earlier this year he became embroiled in two separate inquiries into insider trading, and while the first of these cases was dropped by the FBI, the 44-year-old remains under investigation for trades that he and Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters made in Dean Foods stock just before the company’s prices surged.
Even Tom Watson, Mickelson’s captain, understands that his most experienced player, starting his 10th successive Ryder Cup tomorrow, has an appetite for pot-stirring.
“Phil’s the guy that talks,” Watson said. “He talks smack. He talks the way you’re supposed to be talking in the locker room. He has that talk and he gets people talking back to him. That’s what you have to do.”
Mickelson’s broadside, though, seemed a cheap and gratuitous dig. Not that Rickie Fowler, trying to absorb a few lessons from his elder, minded. “Phil’s always Phil,” said Fowler, after displaying the ‘USA’ he has had shaved into his hair.
“That’s why we love him. We hear a lot of those one‑liners. It’s nothing new.”
The trouble is that Mickelson has an unfortunate habit of engaging his mouth before his brain. When he decided in 2011 to opt out of a planned purchase of the San Diego Padres, his hometown baseball team, he justified it on the grounds that he paid too much tax.
Suggesting that he could up sticks from the state of California, he said of his tax arrangements: “I will be making some drastic changes. I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state, and it doesn’t work for me right now.”
Cue unflattering headlines about the spoilt rich guy. Mickelson, recognising that such comments were insensitive to his supporters, later apologised.
We can rest assured that there will be no apology this time, for Mickelson’s intervention on Wednesday was of a piece with past behaviour.
On Friday he would be better advised trying to atone for the fact that he holds the worst record of any American in Ryder Cup history, with 18 defeats. Ultimately, in this arena, talk is cheap and deeds are precious.