AUCHTERARDER, Scotland – The European team left Gleneagles as 12 men unified in victory. The U.S. team left in disarray.
Phil Mickelson made sure of that.
The five-time major winner laid into Tom Watson’s captaincy during the team’s post-match interview. He accused Watson of ignoring the winning formula Paul Azinger had laid down in 2008. The awkward atmosphere in the interview room could have been cut with a plastic knife.
“There were two things that allow us to play our best, I think, that Paul Azinger did,” Mickelson said. “One was he got everybody invested in the process.
“He got everybody invested in who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod.
“The other thing that Paul did really well was he had a great game plan for us, how we were going to go about doing this.
“I’m just looking back at what gave us the most success, because we used the same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula in 2008 and the last three Ryder Cups. We need to consider maybe getting back to that formula.
“Nobody here was in on any decision.”
Mickelson played the first two sessions with Keegan Bradley, but was benched for Saturday’s session. It’s the first time Mickelson has sat out an entire day in the Ryder Cup. He cut a lonely, despondent figure Saturday afternoon as he stood at the back of the 18th tee watching Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer play U.S. rookies Patrick Reed and Jordan Spieth.
Needless to say, Watson disagreed. He placed the blame squarely on his players.
“I had a different philosophy as far as being captain of this team,” Watson countered. “It takes 12 players to win. It’s not pods. It’s 12 players. Yes, I did talk to my players, but my vice captains were very instrumental in making decisions.
“I did mix and match a little bit. You have to go with the evolution of playing the match and see who is playing the best and who to play with whom. That’s what I did.
“I felt that the assessment of the players was paramount from the standpoint of my vice-captains and me to see who is going to play with whom. My two most important jobs are to make the captain’s picks and then put the team together.”
PGA of America president Ted Bishop was instrumental in picking Watson as captain, and was dismayed by Mickelson's post-tournament comments.
“It was disappointing to hear some of the things said in the press conference, we were a team all week,” Bishop said. “There is no set winning formula, except the players playing better on the golf course.”
Bishop still believes in Watson and his philosophy, which gave almost total control to the captain with what seems to be varying degrees of input by the players.
Watson had not consulted the players before making his three captain's picks of Keegan Bradley, Hunter Mahan and Webb Simpson – who produced a record of 2-5-2.
Further, in two distinct cases this week at Gleneagles, players publicly criticized Watson on his communication.
The first was Jordan Spieth when he was told he would play in the Friday afternoon foursomes if he and Patrick Reed played well in the morning matches. They won 5 and 4 by slaying one of Europe’s best in Ian Poulter, yet still sat in the afternoon.
Mickelson and Keegan Bradley sat all of Saturday matches, although neither expected to have the entire day off.
“The responsibility – in the end it's up to the player, but knowing your player, knowing how to communicate with your player, knowing what worked in the past, and not ignoring what worked in the past, blatantly ignoring what works and what has worked, gone are the days where we dominate this competition,” Azinger said in how to approach the captaincy of the Ryder Cup in the 21st century.
“I don't care how bad we lose, it's still razor thin. I don't care how often we lose, it's still razor thin, the difference. It's razor thin.”
Watson and Azinger agree it is eventually up to the players, but they clearly disagree on how to get the players in the best possible position to win the matches.
“Europe wants to win,” Azinger said. “That's why they have every captain pulling from all the other captains' advice and knowledge and having future captains as assistants for years leading up to these matches. They have a business model in place in their leadership role, because the captain does matter, he creates an environment.”
The reverberations of Mickelson’s attack will last a long time. It remains to be seen how serious of a dent they could place in Watson’s stellar reputation within the game.
Europe’s message all week had been 12 become one. The U.S. seemed set to depart Gleneagles as 12 against one. Or at least one against one.
The rift between Watson and Mickelson might never be healed.