2004: Ryder Cup - Selfish vs. selfless

Bloomfield Township, Mich.

Poor Chris Riley. Truly a deer in the headlights at the Ryder Cup, this kid never seemed to grasp the message of capitulation he inadvertently sent by bowing out of Saturday foursomes.

You’ve got to feel for Fred Funk, too. The plucky Funk appeared to be having a ball at Oakland Hills, but clearly was out of his league on the Ryder Cup stage.

Who doesn’t have sympathy for Jay Haas? The oldest man on the team was asked to play 54 holes – the equivalent of an entire Champions Tour event – in 28 hours.

Jim Furyk, ever the grinder, played his butt off but went a snakebit 0-for-3 in four-ball and foursomes. Down the stretch Saturday morning, the guy threw three consecutive birdies at a European “sacrificial” rookie pairing, yet lost on the 18th hole.

And, yes, Hal Sutton, there’s no justice to the scathing criticism, second-guessing and lampooning you’ve been subjected to – and must continue to endure. It’s not fair; the captain didn’t strike a single shot. But let me tell you something: You’re strong as new rope. You can take it.

What I can’t take is the selfishness of Phil Mickelson. To make what he had to know would be a controversial equipment change only 10 days before the opening match of the 35th Ryder Cup demonstrated nothing but disrespect for his teammates, his captain and the event itself.

Selfish is the opposite of selfless, which describes the European approach – the winning approach – to the Ryder Cup.

Sure, players change equipment all the time. But when you’re about to wrap up the best season of your career and your popularity is at an all-time high, how smart is it to change weapons before a competition that Mickelson referred to as “career-defining.”

How the Mickelson camp failed to anticipate the distraction his switch would create for the American side is mind-boggling. Given the ERC fiasco of 2000, when the brazen marketing of a nonconforming driver offended golf purists and tarnished the company’s reputation, it’s equally perplexing why Callaway took such a risk under the Ryder Cup microscope.

Before the Cup began, Larry Dorman, Callaway’s VP of communications and marketing, said Mickelson’s performance at Oakland Hills – good or bad – would be largely irrelevant. Having secured the endorsement services of one of the most talented and “genuine” players on the PGA Tour, Dorman said, Callaway is in the relationship for the long haul.

Callaway snagged Mickelson after he negotiated an early release from his equipment contract with Titleist, which still had 16 months to run. His Titleist deal was worth upward of $5 million per year; his Callaway deal – reportedly for five years – likely kicks in for at least $6 million in the first year.

Asked at Oakland Hills how he would respond to the characterization of his equipment switch as a “money grab,” Mickelson thought for a few seconds before answering: “Uneducated.”

He insists that the change isn’t so much about money as it is about performance.

“I am most confident (now) in my ability to score lowest,” he said. “It’s with the ball I’m playing and it’s with the woods I’m playing. I didn’t make a change with the irons because of exactly that concern, the distance control and so forth.”

Mickelson said it will be eight months to a year before he’ll be comfortable enough to switch to custom-made forged Callaway irons, which are being designed by Roger Cleveland.

“There’s no rush,” he said. “There was no rush to do any of it.”

Why, then, didn’t he wait until after the Ryder Cup?

“I could have waited until the end of next year (when his Titleist contract expired),” Mickelson said. “But I felt that it was in my best interests and the best interests of the team that I do this now.”

Huh? I still haven’t figured that one out. Nor, apparently, has Sutton.

“I think everybody in this room has questioned something Phil has done before, and he’s come out all right,” Sutton told reporters on Wednesday of Ryder Cup week. “Maybe he’s smarter than everybody else.”

As for Captain Hal, no quibbles here with his vaunted “Dream Team” pairing. Woods and Mickelson played terrific golf in their opening four-ball match. Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington played inspired golf and won.

Mickelson, of course, spit the bit in foursomes. He missed five of nine fairways; one of those holes was halved with a bogey, two were lost – including the 18th when Lefty sliced a 3-wood nearly out of bounds.

In fairness to Callaway, the archer deserves more blame than the arrow. But you have to wonder, even if Mickelson’s swing was out of sync, if he wouldn’t have had a better chance of righting the ship had he been using the same weapons that helped him win one major in 2004 and come close to winning the other three.

In singles, Mickelson led Sergio Garcia 2 up through eight holes. Garcia dug deep; Mickelson couldn’t summon the pinpoint accuracy he needed to counter. Garcia won, 3 and 2, leaving us with the lasting image of Lefty carving a run-up shot into the water at No. 16.

“I felt I needed to take a bit of a risk there trying to get it close,” Mickelson said.

Again, it wasn’t a failure of equipment, but of circuitry between the ears. Confident players pull off risky shots. Only Mickelson knows what effect the weeklong barrage of criticism may have had, or whether doubts about his unfamiliar equipment may have crept into his mind.

To his credit, Sutton had no compunction about sitting Mickelson after his dismal Day 1. He also was bold enough to insist that Mickelson, who will never live down his “inferior equipment” remark, play the Nike ball when paired with Woods in foursomes.

But Sutton should have been equally emphatic with Riley, grabbed him by the scruff of the neck and sent him out with Woods for Saturday foursomes.

And if Sutton didn’t, Woods could have demonstrated a little leadership, cut Riley short and told his captain: “We’ll be there. You can count on us.”

Riley’s trepidation about playing foursomes can only be blamed on Sutton. What does it say about the team’s preparation when one player admits: “To be honest, I’ve never played alternate shot, so I didn’t really feel comfortable doing that.”

Allowing his players to prepare individually for a team match made no sense whatsoever.

Perhaps Sutton had no choice. As Mickelson demonstrated, this was a group of individuals who never figured out how to function as a team.

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