Phil Mickelson defends Rory McIlroy

Updated: September 29, 2010, 4:51 PM ET
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

NEWPORT, Wales -- Phil Mickelson did his best Wednesday to downplay the "saga" that has dominated the Ryder Cup -- Tiger Woods versus Rory McIlroy.

McIlroy made it clear several weeks ago that he relished the opportunity to face the world's No. 1 golfer in the Ryder Cup because Woods was not at the top of his game.

Presented with that challenge, Woods didn't mince words when asked about the possibility of facing McIlroy, either.

Mickelson played referee.

"That's the feel that any player has. Any player wants to play the best and Tiger is ranked No. 1 in the world," Mickelson said. "That's the type of charisma that Rory McIlroy has. He's just like any other top player who wants to take on the best. That's not any type of controversy or saga."

Mickelson scoffed when asked if Woods took umbrage at the supposed challenge.

"They get along great, are you kidding me? Rory is one of the nicest guys you can imagine," Mickelson said. "He's one of the classiest guys on tour and Tiger gets along with just about everybody, usually because he beats them and he's nice to them when he beats them.

"Rory is as classy a guy as there is. I've been paired with him a bunch and I really enjoy playing with him."

Asked if he foresees being paired with Woods (they famously lost two matches paired together in 2004 at Oakland Hills), Mickelson had tongue very firmly planted in cheek.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "I think there's a great chance. Why don't you just hold your breath and we'll see 'til Friday."

Mickelson then went on to hint strongly that Woods will be paired with Steve Stricker, a team that went 4-0 at last year's Presidents Cup.

"I would be very surprised if that team got split up," Mickelson said. "I would expect the same undefeated record that Stricker and Tiger had at the Presidents Cup. Because of that record, I think that that partnership should not be split up."

But even more than who would pair up on the same team, the Woods-McIlroy dynamic continued to dominate the pre-Ryder Cup buzz.

On Wednesday, Padraig Harrington said everyone on Europe's team wanted to play Woods in previous Ryder Cups because when the world's No. 1 player was on top of his game, his opponents had nothing to lose. Woods was expected to win every match.

Now that Woods is a captain's pick who has failed to win this year, Harrington isn't so sure.

"In many ways, it will be a tougher match this time around," Harrington said. "He'll be more enthusiastic, more motivated, so I would be very wary of him myself."

Whether Woods and McIlroy play each other is a matter of chance, as the Ryder Cup features a blind draw.

U.S. captain Corey Pavin said it would violate the spirit of the matches for him and European captain Colin Montgomerie to arrange Woods and McIlroy to face each other in singles.

"But I think it would be fun for me to watch," Pavin said.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com. Information from The Associated Press is included in this report.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com

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