LET me say straight away that Phil Mickelson is not my favourite golfer.
To his great credit, however, the five-time Major winner goes out of his way to interact with his followers, to the extent that he is adored by golf fans.
But there is a darker side to Mickelson, one he careful disguises when he is on public display wearing his cheesy smile and exuding charm.
Tom Watson is equally revered, most especially in Scotland, where he won four of his five Open titles. He is also careful to cultivate his image of being a lover of all things Scottish.
With his fixed grin, good ol’ Kansas boy approach and oft-stated reverence for the Royal & Ancient game, Watson also radiates charm.
But he, too, hides a darker side, the details of which cannot be released into the public domain, as to do so would invite swift and punitive legal redress.
So, you will just have to take my word for it when I say these two highly visible figures are not all that they seem.
Where is this leading, you may well ask?
It is not, I stress, a gratuitous attack on the character of two of the game’s leading personalities. But, after mulling over the events of last Sunday evening at Gleneagles, I feel a need to attempt to set the record straight.
Mickelson has been pilloried for what was generally regarded as an outrageous attack on Watson’s leadership in his role as the United States’ Ryder Cup captain.
Emotions in the American camp were raw after Europe had inflicted a 16½ -11½ defeat on their rivals – the eighth such reversal in the last ten stagings of the biennial match.
In the hunt for scapegoats, Watson was an easy target. But he was not of a mind to take the rap for yet another generally inept performance by the superstars of the PGA Tour.
Instead, he pointed a finger at his players – three of whom he had chosen = and stated that they had not risen to the challenge.
The fixed grin was still very much in evidence but he looked every inch his 65 years as he faced the world’s golf media.
Perhaps if he had held up his hands and accepted a collective blame, what happened next would have been avoided.
But it was evident from the expression on the faces of several of his team and their general body language that they were not of a mind to carry the can while their captain body-swerved any responsibility.
Then up spake the boldest member, face as bold as brass. Phil, at the age of 44, was going down and he was taking Watson with him.
The following day’s headlines, especially those of the tabloids – much to the delight of the American hacks, who revel in the excesses of their British cousins – castigated Leftie for having the temerity to launch a scathing attack on Scotland’s favourite golfing Yank.
He was accused of being disrespectful in the extreme; of lacking dignity and class and of the most appalling timing.
No mention was made that Watson had texted Mickelson to inform him he was not playing in the Saturday fourballs and foursomes instead of telling him in person. One is tempted to suggest that is equally disrespectful.
Yet, in essence, all Mickelson did was answer, truthfully in his view, a question thrown out to the American team at large.
Can anyone who was on the team at Valhalla put his finger on what worked in 2008 and what hasn’t worked since?
Mickelson: “There were two things that allowed us to play our best that Paul Azinger did, and one was he got everybody invested in the process; who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod, when they would play.
“They also had a great leader for each pod, in my case, we had Ray Floyd, and we hung out together and we were all invested in each other’s play.
The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan. Those two things helped bring out our best golf.
“We use that same process in The Presidents’ Cup and we do really well.
Unfortunately, we strayed from a winning formula for the last three Ryder Cups, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”
When it was put to Mickelson that his words felt like a pretty brutal destruction of the leadership, he retorted: “Oh, I’m sorry you’re taking it that way. I’m just talking about what Paul Azinger did to help us play our best.
“You asked me what I thought we should do going toward to, and I go back to when we played our best golf and try to replicate that formula.”
That didn’t happen this week?
“Uh, no,” replied Mickelson before going on: “In my 20 years of playing these team events, this is one of the best group of 12 players, and it’s really been a pleasure to be part of this team.”
Watson, by now having sunk deeper into his seat, was asked for his take on Mickelson’s assessment of Azinger’s style of captaincy.
“I had a different philosophy as far as being a captain of this team,“ he responded. “You know, it takes 12 players to win. It’s not pods. I did talk to the players, but my vice captains were very instrumental in making decisions as to whom to pair. I had a different philosophy than Paul, and I decided not to go that way.”
Was Mickelson being disloyal, then?
“No, not at all. He has a difference of opinion and that’s okay. My two jobs were to make the captain’s picks and then put the team together. Whether I did the best possible job, that’s up to you people to debate. But the bottom line is, the Europeans kicked our butt.”
Indeed, my dear Watson.
And Phil’s mistake? Not discussing his thoughts with his captain beforehand. His timing could also have been better.
Other than that, Phil Mickelson has had a raw deal from the media