U.S. Presidents Cup captain Steve Stricker knew as the words left his mouth that what he was telling Phil Mickelson last month in Akron, Ohio, was a bit odd and rather awkward.
At the WGC-Bridgestone, Stricker, a 12-time winner with zero majors, was telling Mickelson, a 42-time winner and World Golf Hall of Famer with five majors, that he needed to see more from him and his game.
“Yeah, I apologized for that,” Stricker said sheepishly at The Northern Trust. He laughed at the recollection. “It doesn’t sound right coming from a guy like me.”
Mickelson, winless since the 2013 Open Championship, had struggled to contend all season, has had issues focusing and languished outside of the top 10 in the Presidents Cup standings (a T-6 finish at Dell Technologies elevated him to 15th). Regardless, Stricker, his vice-captains and his players unanimously wanted him. Mickelson, 47, will play on a U.S. side for the 23rd consecutive year, an incredible run that dates to the inaugural Presidents Cup in 1994.
Mickelson has more match victories in the Presidents Cup (23) than his 11 teammates combined (15). He has played alongside 15 partners in his Presidents’ tenure: six are playing the over-50 PGA Tour Champions (Tom Lehman, Corey Pavin, David Toms, Davis Love III, Fred Funk, Woody Austin); three have transitioned to television work (David Duval, Chris DiMarco, Justin Leonard); and one (Anthony Kim) is out of golf altogether.
The big left-hander? He timelessly marches on.
In some ways, though he wanted to qualify on points, Mickelson – 3-0-1 in South Korea as a captain’s pick two years ago – finds it gratifying that the entire team wanted him at Liberty National.
“I think there’s a lot of merit to that,” Mickelson said. “Although I wanted to make it on points, to be one of the picks because of the players and the captain and vice-captains wanting you on the team, (it) means as much as anything to me.
“And although I’ve played on a number of these teams, my excitement level to be on this team is every bit as great as any team event I’ve played on.”
The constant drumbeat among captains and players is that Mickelson is “great in the team room.” What, exactly, does that mean?
Stricker recently viewed a Golf Channel episode documenting the 2011 Presidents Cup in Australia. Jim Furyk had not had a very good year but made the team, found a spark and finished 5-0. Afterward, he credited his partner, Phil Mickelson.
“He does that every year, it seems like,” Stricker said of Mickelson. “He’s really light. He’s funny. He farts around. I think he has a calming influence. He thinks about everything, and he has a lot of knowledge about the team, what we should do. He’s just really good. He’s a team guy. He makes everybody feel really good, and guys like having him around.”
Matt Kuchar, who has played Presidents Cups and Ryder Cups with Mickelson, rattled off words to help describe what Mickelson delivers: Fun. Comfort. Senior leadership.
“I don’t know if you’d call it a ‘big brother’ role,” Kuchar said, “but he’s a guy you feel like you can trust with anything. He’s got advice on any subject you can possibly bring up. He’s been there and experienced something of that nature, and he’s just helpful and giving.
“He certainly has whatever that ‘X factor’ is that you can use in the team room.”
Adds Jordan Spieth, 23 years Mickelson’s junior, “Phil brings a lot. If players are up in the air about who they should play with, he’s very good about feeling that out.”
Mickelson, for his part, enjoys the challenge of trying to find just the right controls to push to motivate different teammates. There is no one set formula, and he charts a game plan the way he might plot strategy at a new course.
The exercise provides mental stimulation for him that traces back to Mickelson’s college days at Arizona State, where he majored in psychology.
“I always enjoyed kind of what we called the Inverted U theory about how excited you want to be to play your best, and how you can be overly excited, or ‘underly’ excited, and how on a team everybody is a little bit different,” Mickelson said in a quiet moment inside the locker room at the Northern Trust. “Some people are over-amped, some people are a little under-amped. Some people need a little pep talk, some people need to get out of the way.
“I’ve always enjoyed learning about people, and understanding people and their behavior, and why people act certain ways. That’s always an innate curiosity that I had.”
At the Presidents Cup, that innate curiosity has translated to a career mark of 23-16-12, which is better than Mickelson’s mark on the more intensified stage of the Ryder Cup (18-20-7).
One young player that Mickelson took under his wing was Keegan Bradley at the 2012 Ryder Cup. He could see the rookie’s eyes spinning on the first tee at Medinah for Day 1 foursomes, and as Mickelson spoke to him, he knew Bradley didn’t hear a word.
Finally, Mickelson hit Bradley in the chest. Looking down the fairway at the 433-yard opening hole, he forcefully told the rookie, “Hey, I don’t want a wedge, I don’t want a sand wedge, I want a (expletive) L-wedge in there! He says, ‘You got it!’ And he blistered one. I had an L-wedge into that first hole because he hit it so hard. But he helped me as much as I helped him.”
Of the 24 players competing in this Presidents Cup, none will receive the reception that Mickelson will get at Liberty National. New York loves the man, dating to close calls at U.S. Opens played at Bethpage, Shinnecock and Winged Foot, and his victory at the 2005 PGA Championship at nearby Baltusrol in New Jersey.
“He’s loved everywhere,” Stricker said, “but especially there. He’s a favorite son.”
As well as a U.S. team mainstay, as dependable as the U.S. mail.
“Great in the team room, great on the golf course,” Stricker said, “and it’s a guy that you, when you look at a team, it would be hard to imagine not having him on the team.”
Fortunately, he won’t have to imagine that. Mickelson tied for sixth outside Boston, and Stricker, after polling his team, made the call. One of golf’s more impressive ironman streaks marches on.
(Note: This story appeared in the September 2017 issue of Golfweek.)