News & Opinion

Garcia escapes hot seat, but not Mickelson

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – Ponder this for a moment: Last week, the world’s top pros gathered at the Tour Championship in Atlanta to play for a $9 million purse and to carve up a big piece of the $30 million FedEx Cup bonus pool. Instead of courtesy cars, players in Atlanta ought to drive around in Brink’s trucks.

This week at the Ryder Cup, many of those same players have traveled to France to compete in an event with no purse at all. They play solely for country and pride.

Funny, though, that the tournament in which their hands shake as they try to get a golf ball to balance on a small wooden tee in front of 7,000 fans ringing the first hole isn't the Tour Championship; it's this one. Yes, the Ryder Cup at Le Golf National is a very different animal than anything else in the game. It takes rookies one session to learn that this event is like no other in golf.

There is so much upside to competing in a Ryder Cup, and making a team, but there can exist a downside, too. From a general fans’ perspective, this is no different than two NFL teams squaring up on a football field on a Sunday. Fairly or not, this event has the ability to place players in compartments as heroes or, well, goats (and we’re not talking GOATs). Though players show up for free, they can carry a great deal of pressure on their shoulders at a Ryder Cup. Play poorly in a major championship, and you miss the cut and go home. Play poorly in a key moment at the Ryder Cup, and there is nowhere to hide. Making amends is two years away – maybe.

Tiger Woods has lived in a fishbowl for more than two decades, and the spotlight is most intense on him wherever he goes. So, let's toss Woods out of this equation and go simply with a Mortal Division. That gives us two players who arrived at the 42nd Ryder Cup under the most scrutiny: captain’s selections Sergio Garcia of Europe and Phil Mickelson of the U.S.

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Sergio Garcia adds another Ryder Cup victory to his impressive match-play resume.

© GOLFFILE/DAVID LLOYD
Sergio Garcia adds another Ryder Cup victory to his impressive match-play resume.

In Friday’s first day of play (scores), these two became a Dickens tale. It was the best of times (Garcia), and it was the worst (Mickelson). Their performances were about as wide apart as Paris, France, and Paris, Texas.

Mickelson is playing on his 12th team, a record. That in itself is an incredible accomplishment. He has been on every Ryder Cup or Presidents Cup team dating to 1994. Current teammates Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau were in diapers back then.

Mickelson went out with one of those rookies (DeChambeau) on Friday, and the two laid an egg in the foursomes session (they did have company). Mickelson mustered a squirrely opening shot, and things never did get much better. On a difficult course, with the wind picking up in the afternoon, not only did he run into two red-hot opponents (Garcia and rookie partner Alex Noren), but to compound things, Mickelson and DeChambeau shot 4-over 40 on their first nine holes. As a result, they were soda-bottled at the turn: Europe was 7 up. They actually did well to lose 5 and 4.

It was one session, but it was embarrassing for Mickelson, who’d made so much about wanting to be on this, his 12th team. Embarrassing for his captain, Jim Furyk, too.

For the first time, a captain’s pick had to be used on Lefty, and at 48, though his Hall of Fame legacy is quite secure, he has a lot on the line.

Some questioned why Furyk would put Mickelson out in foursomes (alternate shot) and not the morning four-balls. In a better-ball format, if Mickelson were to drive it wildly (hypothetically, of course), a partner could help bail him out until he finds something. Mickelson came into Le Golf with a career Ryder Cup record of 8-8-2 in four-balls, and was 5-7-4 (now 5-8-4) in foursomes. To his credit, Furyk, a thoughtful captain who combines statistical analytics with what his gut tells him (Jimmy Ball), reasoned that Le Golf’s rough is so thick and penal that a long hitter such as Mickelson would be hitting 3-woods and irons off the tee. Mickelson’s iron game is his strength. That’s why he was seen as a better fit for foursomes.

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Phil Mickelson continues to struggle, losing on Day 1 of the Ryder Cup.

Disclaimer: Driving accuracy on the PGA Tour week to week has little bearing, as many players on this U.S. team rank outside, say, the top 120 – Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Brooks Koepka, Tony Finau and Patrick Reed among them. If there’s no rough at a Tour event, players can bomb it and gouge it with little penalty from outside the fairway. But a player cannot do that this week at Le Golf. The rough is tougher than cube steak.

Euro captain Thomas Bjorn brilliantly removed drivers from the hands of U.S. power players. If Europe wins on Sunday, the Man of the Match might be Scott's Turf Builder. OK, we know you are curious: Out of 193 players measured in driving accuracy on Tour this season, where did Mickelson rank? He was 192nd.

If the U.S. trails into today’s second session, there’s a chance Mickelson might sit the entire day. Furyk might not have a choice. He said the team is in tune with his mission to do whatever it takes to be in position to win on Sunday. If they trail, given Mickelson’s recent form, he probably will sit.

For all of Mickelson’s foursomes woes on Friday, it probably doesn’t help that one of the players administering the thumping on him was Garcia, the Spanish saddle burr who is competing in his ninth Ryder Cup. On form alone, there was a more deserving Spaniard for that spot, Rafael Cabrera Bello, but Garcia was the man who got the good call from Bjorn. The captain knows what Garcia brings, and how he not only summons the best out of himself, but the best out of others, too. Garcia hasn’t had half the career of Mickelson (one major to five), but at the Ryder Cup, where he improved his record to 20-11-7, he is Superman. He certainly has outshined the big left-hander.

“I’ve felt all along with him that if I made that phone call to him, that he was going to be in this team, well, then he would regroup his whole world,” Bjorn said of Garcia. “He went back to Spain for a couple weeks and worked really hard with his dad, and he played in Portugal. I felt, with him, that having those conversations with him – he loves this event, he loves playing in it and he loves preparing for it. If you gave him the right frame to do that, then he would come here and be able to play good golf.

“But also, what he brings outside of the golf course is so crucial to a European team. He really is that type of guy that binds it all together in the team room.”

Mickelson is heralded as a great team-room guy, too. These two came to the Ryder Cup as the men on the hot seat. On Friday, one delivered, and one failed mightily. For an event that is played for free, the Ryder Cup can exact a high price.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: jeffbabz@att.net. Twitter: @jeffbabz62