Mickelson sticks to normal routine

Updated: September 16, 2004, 11:54 AM ET
By Tim Rosaforte | Golf World

BLOOMFIELD HILLS, Mich. -- It's not a Ryder Cup until there's a controversy, invented or otherwise. On Wednesday the stage belonged to Phil Mickelson, who became a cause celebre by skipping a Ryder Cup practice round while the rest of his team played nine holes at Oakland Hills.

Normally this wouldn't be that big a deal because Phil always takes off the day before a major. The only problem is, this was two days before a major and Phil just changed equipment, from one major brand to another, two weeks before a competition where he would be playing not only for himself, but his country.

In his news conference at 7:30 a.m., Mickelson said, "I could have waited until the end of the year, but I felt that it was in my best interests and the best interests of the team that I do this now."

This drew a flurry of follow-up questions, but Phil handled them all, explaining that last week's T-57 at the Canadian Open wasn't a true reflection of the comfort level he's feeling with a new driver and ball. He pointed to the final-round 68 he shot at Glen Abbey, and the seven-plus hours of quality practice he put in on Monday at the Ryder Cup venue.

"For me to play my best, I have to be excited about what I have," Mickelson said. "I am and I think that will ultimately be best for the team."

One thing we are constantly reminded about Phil: Expect the unexpected -- just don't expect Hal Sutton and the United States team to get caught up in it. They've all changed equipment in their careers. They know it's just business. They also know that Mickelson has developed a preparation game plan that has resulted in 1, 2, 3, 6 finishes in this year's major championships.

"You're reading too much into this," said Sutton. "Phil doesn't play on Wednesdays at major championships. Now why don't you see the positive side to that?"

Why? Because this is a Ryder Cup and thus far it's been a slow news week. Tiger Woods hasn't broken up with Elin and he hasn't practiced in a mock turtleneck while the rest of the team was in golf shirts. While never forgotten by the Europeans, time has seemed to heal the wound of the Brookline Breakdance. The PGA of America has banned alcohol on the premises, cutting down on ugly fan behavior.

Portrayed as a bunch of individuals, this U.S. team has bonded as well as any U.S. team. There has been none of the bitter "War by the Shore" mentality that existed in this rivalry a decade ago. At the Fox Theatre on Wednesday night, both teams mixed and danced to the Pointer Sisters. They even signed each other's menus. (There was a controversy about this in 1993, when U.S. captain Tom Watson refused Sam Torrance's request.)

"Last time I checked, all of us play on the same tour," said Stewart Cink, explaining the decompression. "It's not like they are all traveling in a big van over there or anything. When a lot of guys come over here to play, they are not spending as much time with their Ryder Cup teammates anymore."

In other words, they're independent contractors on both sides of the pond. That's why it's hard to publicly criticize a fiercely independent man like Mickelson for doing it his own way. There is little loyalty in the endorsement game, and it cuts both ways. One of Mickelson's commercials even begs the question: "What will Phil do next?"

The answer will come on Friday, when Mickelson steps to the first tee at Oakland Hills. He was in the midst of a career year, winning the Masters, becoming the longest and straightest driver on the PGA Tour. There's always a transition period when making a change, and even Woods has switched drivers and balls in the middle of a season. But you'd think a guy with new equipment in his bag would at least put in a little range time. After the team photos, Phil went back to the Townsend Hotel to rest up for the Gala Dinner.

"You know, anytime a great player like that makes a shift in equipment, I think everybody is surprised by it," Sutton said. "You know, you can't be upset about things like that because he's got a life that he's got to live. He's got things he's got to answer to."

The captain wished him luck, said he saw no reason why Phil couldn't play well with his new equipment -- equipment, by the way, that Sutton also uses and is paid to endorse. And then he couldn't help but add, "If he can't, well I've chosen the wrong equipment company, too."

Sutton may come across as a hard-line southern football coach, but his guys played only nine holes on Wednesday anyway. What players have learned with all the dinners and get-togethers is that they need to conserve energy so that when Friday comes, they're ready. Davis Love III said he could recall wanting to skip an entire day of Ryder Cup practice, but never having the nerve to ask the captain if he could. "The big topic of conversation today was the afternoon naps and how many of us could get one in before the ceremonies," Love said.

Cink took the same position, calling Mickelson "smart" for taking the day off. "Phil, he's bold at times, he's not afraid to make a decision that might ruffle a few feathers. A lot of people probably wouldn't have the guts to say, 'I'm not coming to the practice round today at the Ryder Cup.' As Phil has shown time and time again, he has the guts to do just about everything."

At the gala dinner on Wednesday night at the Fox Theatre in downtown Detroit, Phil looked rested and relaxed. The program included a few songs from "Golf, the Musical," and the lead to the Broadway play even threw in a subtle shot at Phil changing clubs. Players on the United States team slapped each other on the back and laughed. Phil put that smile on his face, that same smile he wore walking off the 18th green at Augusta.

Maybe he knows something we don't know, or maybe it's that old Phil coming through. He'd rather hit the shot through the trees and skip it across the water than go the conventional route.

"What will Phil do next?" The unexpected.

Tim Rosaforte is a senior writer for Golf World magazine

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