MELBOURNE, Australia – Since 1997, each time autumn arrives and a Ryder or Presidents Cup rolls around, Phil Mickelson and Jim Furyk have been pillars on a U.S. squad. They’ve flown on team charters together, attended fancy dinners and team functions together, played pingpong together, and enjoyed many laughs with the wives, who happen to be good friends.
From Spain to South Africa to Wales, they’ve been there – they simply rarely have joined forces with each other. You’d have to dust off old records to find a Mickelson-Furyk pairing before this week’s ninth Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne. They were paired once, at the 1999 Ryder Cup at Brookline, Mass., and lost in four-ball play on the 18th green to a red-hot tandem of Jesper Parnevik and a rookie named Sergio Garcia.
As partners go, Furyk and Mickelson were passing ships in the U.S. team night, each trying a myriad of partnerships and trials along the way, often stepping up to take a younger player beneath their respective wings. Not this week, though. U.S. captain Fred Couples, not the most conventional sort, decided to put the team’s two veteran warhorses alongside each other, first in opening-day foursomes (a 4-and-3 romp over Retief Goosen/Robert Allenby), and then Friday in Day 2 four-ball. His results have been resounding, too; with a 2-and-1 triumph over Adam Scott and K.T. Kim in Friday four-balls, Mickelson-Furyk are 2-for-2.
“Awesome,” is how Mickelson chose to describe his first two days at Royal Melbourne. “Today was a great day. I struggled through the round, started out hot, and then I missed some putts and it shook my confidence. Jim said, ‘Look, forget those; we’re going to have to make some of those coming down the stretch.’ And I ended up making a 5- or 6-footer (for birdie) on 15.”
For Furyk, the admiration has been mutual. Traditionally, the general idea in foursomes is to pair similar-style games. As golfers, Furyk and Mickelson would seem as similar as oil and water. Furyk is calculating and plots his way around the course; Mickelson is the go-for-broke guy who’d just assume put a golf course in a headlock. (“I hit a few more fairways than he does,” Furyk joked before the matches began.) But Couples’ pairings gamble has worked, and the captain will return to it once more Saturday, when Mickelson and Furyk will take on Aussies Aaron Baddeley/Jason Day in the anchor match of the morning foursomes.
“I would have told you we’d mesh better in four-ball, but in the foursomes you get to interact and talk because you’re going to the same ball all the time,” Furyk explained on Friday, standing just off the 17th green where his 15-foot birdie putt ended the match. “This golf course, in conditions like these (windy and difficult), isn’t so much about making birdies, but about having two guys in the hole, taking pressure away, staying loose. Even after (losing) 16, we were still in the driver’s seat. So we just needed to relax the last couple holes and hit some good shots.”
Furyk took care of that himself at 17, stuffing an 8-iron to 14 feet for a clinching birdie. As good as that was, it didn’t trump the scrambling par he made from a short-side bunker at the par-3 14th, where the Internationals seemed poised to win a hole. Furyk splashed a bunker shot that cleared the lip by inches, then rolled out 15 feet past the flagstick, as good as he could do. The ensuing putt finished dead-center, kept the U.S. 2 up, and, as Mickelson said, “changed the whole match.”
Furyk, 41, is just 35 days older than Mickelson. The two have known each other since they were 16 and playing the AJGA circuit. When it was time to go off to college, Mickelson, the San Diego kid, chose Arizona State; Furyk, a Pennsylvanian, chose Arizona.
“We really became a lot better friends now that we’re golf professionals and we’ve been around each other a long time,” Furyk said. “I’ve had a lot of fun with him at these events. And Amy (Mickelson) and Tabitha (Furyk) are good friends and the kids all get along well, so when we get opportunities, we spend a little time together.”
The two golfers have spent all their time together at Royal Melbourne. Some partnerships interact more than others, but Furyk and Mickelson have spent a good portion of their rounds communicating with each other, talking over shots, figuring out the wind, and assessing putts on Royal Melbourne’s slick, undulating greens.
“Some guys like it (interacting), some don’t,” Furyk said. “We tried it early on, and then tried it a little bit in practice rounds. Yesterday (Thursday), I realized that we see things a lot the same. Everyone has their own style, whether it’s flow or linear look, and we see things similarly. And it helps me out.”
Mickelson is coming off a tough year, mostly due to the fact that he has struggled with his putting. When he started missing putts in the range of 4-6 feet midway through Friday’s match, he credited Furyk for helping him keep a positive attitude.
“He gave me the energy to turn it around,” Mickelson said.
Funny that it would take all these years for a U.S. captain to dust off the idea of pairing these two elder stalwarts. And the magic in Mickelson-Furyk wasn’t lost on the opponent to whom they dealt defeat on Friday.
“Why does it work? For starters, you have two of the best players from the last 15 years playing together,” Adam Scott said. “They have a ton of experience and they’re world-class players, so it’s a very strong pairing. Jim is the guy who is the percentage man, who figures everything out, and Phil is the supertalent who can pull anything out of the hat.
“That’s a tough pairing.”