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. “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 mind-sets 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.
The Europeans say this U.S. team seems like a close-knit bunch, and Mickelson – along with fellow veterans Tiger 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.
The mentoring goes beyond the course.
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.
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.
ROOKIES ON THE SPOT: There will be no room for growing pains for Keegan Bradley and the other three U.S. rookies – Snedeker Jason Dufner and Webb Simpson.
The Americans have only one victory in the past five Ryder Cups, and they will be looking for a fast start when the foursomes begin this morning. The raucous crowds, the adrenaline, the weight of playing for your country and 11 other guys instead of yourself – that’s why there were three days of practice rounds.
EUROPEANS WANT RESPECT: Europe has been trying to win over the American crowd at Medinah all week during practice rounds, with players going out of their way to sign autographs and mingle with the fans. And it helps that one of their own, Luke Donald, actually lives in Chicago.
Leaving nothing to chance, European captain Jose Maria Olazabal made one last plea to be loud, but to be respectful.
“Chicago is a passionate city,” Olazabal said during the opening ceremony. “We know you will be as strong in support for your team. But I believe you will honor the courtesy of sportsmanship that is the bedrock of Ryder Cup.”
Olazabal, a two-time Masters champion and one of the most respected figures in the game, was in the decisive match at Brookline in 1999 against Justin Leonard. All square on the 17th, with the Americans one-half point away from completing the biggest comeback in Ryder Cup history, Leonard rammed in a 45-foot birdie putt. Players and wives charged across the green to celebrate, forgetting that the Spaniard had a 25-foot putt to halve the hole.
Olazabal missed, and the Americans won, though the celebration stained the matches at The Country Club.
“We know Boston ... how loud the crowds can be there when we play tournaments over there,” he said later. “We know Chicago is going to be loud. Chicago is a great sporting city. They love the game of golf, and I’m pretty sure they are very strong in their support for the U.S. team, without a doubt. But I felt that I needed to just make that point clear. Actually, Davis did it, also, in a similar way.”
Love also preached sportsmanship for the next three days at the opening ceremony.
“These matches are not life and death,” Love said. “Golf has to be played with a certain spirit of graciousness or it’s not golf at all.”
Olazabal and Love turned pro the same year on different tours. Love was runner-up to him in the 1999 Masters, and they have been close friends. Olazabal hopes that will carry through into the crowd.
“Even though we are going to try to beat each other, the spirit of the Ryder Cup is what it is,” Olazabal said. “There is no need for any harsh words or bad comments at the wrong time. That’s why I felt that I needed to make that point, anyway.”
TIGER TALES: Tiger Woods was asked to describe the feelings of the first shot he hit in the Ryder Cup, and he took his experience back even farther. Last week at the Tour Championship, he mentioned his Walker Cup experience in Wales.
“I was introduced and just got a huge ovation of boos,” Woods said. “I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, welcome to the Walker Cup.’ Well, I got to Spain (1997 Ryder Cup) and it was even more so. And that was nice. That was good. It was fun being in that atmosphere, because we don’t get to play home and road matches, so this is fun for me.”
Booing at the Walker Cup?
That didn’t sound right to the golf correspondent for the Press Association, who contacted Stephen Gallacher. In the opening match of the 1995 Walker Cup, Woods and John Harris played Gallacher and Gordon Sherry.
“I have absolutely no memories of anybody booing <0x2014> no chance,” Gallacher said. “I was standing alongside him and it’s the sort of thing that would stick in your mind. I would be very, very, very surprised if anybody did anything like that. I honestly can’t see it happening at an amateur event.”
WELCOME TO THE NEIGHBORHOOD: Davis Love III has been dreading his speech at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony ever since he was appointed captain, even joking he would get assistant captain Fred Couples to do it for him.
Love did beautifully Thursday, until it came to introduce his team and their hometown.
“From Sea Island, Georgia,” Love began, looking over at his players who were sitting in alphabetical order. Jim Furyk smiled at him, and Love corrected himself. Furyk for years has lived in Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla.
There are two players who make their home at Sea Island - Matt Kuchar and Zach Johnson, and Johnson prefers to be introduced from Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Besides, Sea Island is not a town, rather a golf resort. The town is St. Simons Island, where Love has lived since 1978.
He handled his faux pas as smooth as the rest of his speech.
When asked on stage about sending Furyk out in the first game, Love said with a smile, “I don’t know where Jim is from, but I’ll trust him on the golf course.”
Love said later it was an innocent mistake.
Johnson is from Cedar Rapids, even though he lives down the street from Love at Sea Island. Brandt Snedeker is from Nashville, Tenn., though he has a home at Sea Island. Kuchar used to live in Ponte Vedra Beach, and that change was not made on one version of Love’s speech. So when he saw “Ponte Vedra,” his mind told him it was Kuchar and it needed to be fixed. That’s his story anyway.
“It’s the simple fact that we want Jim and Tabitha to move to Sea Island,” Love said. “You know, if that’s the only mistake I made in that speech and Ollie got through it without crying about Seve ... because I was crying when he was talking about Seve. I’m happy. It’s over. He and I can celebrate that the speeches are done and the pomp and circumstance is over, and that we can go play.”
It could have been worse.
At the last Ryder Cup, U.S. captain Corey Pavin overlooked Stewart Cink and went through the entire introduction before he realized his mistake.
THERE’S ONLY ONE MOLINARI: Europe’s partnerships were relatively easy to figure out except for who would play with Lee Westwood. So one British reporter was surprised when Westwood was matched with Francesco Molinari.
And that surprised captain Jose Maria Olazabal.
“Do you think that was a surprise?” he said. “You don’t think Francesco is a steady player.”
The reporter said Molinari was an excellent player.
“All right then, no surprise to me,” Olazabal said. “It might surprise you, but when you look at Francesco’s game, he’s a steady player. He very rarely misses a shot. He’s straight off the tee. He hits good iron shots. And that’s pretty much what you look for when you are playing foursomes.”
OLAZABAL’S DRIVE: Seve Ballesteros seemed to be five places at once as captain in the 1997 Ryder Cup at Valderrama, driving his golf cart like he was on the autobahn.
The question to Jose Maria Olazabal was whether he would be as visible as his mentor, zipping around in a cart to cheer on his team.
“Well, I have to be careful how I drive the buggy,” Olazabal said. “I don’t want to get fined like I did when I was going from Augusta to Hilton Head.”
The room erupted in laughs.
On his way from the Masters this April, Olazabal was stopped for going 97 mph in a 65 mph speed zone. He paid a $621 fine in cash.