September 21, 2008

Rise And Shine

While young guns Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan enjoyed breakout weeks at Valhalla, veteran Phil Mickelson seemed stuck in neutral

Kim became the United States' unlikely standard bearer with play, composure well beyond his years.

Kim became the United States' unlikely standard bearer with play, composure well beyond his years.

Presuming a good Ryder Cup performance is the best investment a young player can make in his future, Anthony Kim and Hunter Mahan made a killing at Valhalla.

J.B. Holmes has more power and just as much chutzpah, but of all of America's young players, Kim and Mahan have the most game through the bag. It's the kind that can win on different courses and make them fixtures on leader boards at majors. In Louisville both players provided talent and a blithe energy which translated into vital points -- 2½ for Kim, a team-high 3½ for Mahan.

The pair were the heart of U.S. captain Paul Azinger's youth movement, as he played Mahan in all five sessions (Phil Mickelson and Europe's Ian Poulter were the only others to do so), while Kim played four. But it was where he played them in the Sunday singles that demonstrated Azinger's deep belief. With the U.S. sitting on a precarious 9-7 lead, Azinger sent Kim and Mahan out first and second when two losses could have started a meltdown of Europe-at-Brookline proportions.

Kim simply didn't let it happen, jumping Ryder Cup stalwart Sergio Garcia with four perfect full shots right out of the box to produce two easy birdies. He barely let up, so engrossed in the process that when he made a seven-footer for a tying par on the par-3 14th, he began marching to the 15th tee. It took rules official John Paramor to inform Kim that he had won, 5 and 4. Garcia was gracious in congratulating the momentarily sheepish Kim, and later admitted that for all his own formidable tee-to-green fire power, he had been outgunned. "It was hard day because I played against a guy that played awesome," Garcia said.

The 23-year-old Kim's week had steadily built to its crescendo. Having overcome his reputation for cockiness by both toning down his naive rookie bravado of 2007 as well as posting impressive victories at Wachovia and Congressional earlier this year, Kim now is accorded good-natured teasing from veterans. After Mickelson offered a compliment about the play of the team's six rookies at the post-victory press conference, Furyk added, "Never say anything that nice about Anthony," raising outstretched palms to pantomime an expanding head. Then he hugged a smiling Kim.

"Anthony was amazing," said assistant captain Dave Stockton. "He stepped up immediately, not just on the course but in the team room. He didn't wait for the veterans. In fact, it was like we got another veteran, except one who had never lost and felt invincible. To use Boo's phrase, he was a major compatibator."

In practice rounds of "my aggressives" (Azinger's tag for the group of Kim, Mahan, Phil Mickelson and Justin Leonard, and assistant captain Raymond Floyd), the 5-foot-10, 160-pound toy cannon was in his element. He fended off Mickelson's more or less constant needles, by occasionally pointing out that a Wal-Mart would fit nicely in the distance he hit drives past the big left-hander. "It's good to see someone get in Phil's grill," said the shyer Mahan. Said Mickelson of Kim, "He's a hoot to be around. He's one of the reasons we were so loose as a team."

There is about Kim an unmistakable precociousness that conveys instant readiness. It comes across in a surprisingly sotto-voce verbosity, as well as an easy smile and jaunty body language that Stockton says "just shows he's fine in his own skin." Of all the American players, it was the youngest, Kim, who looked most comfortable interacting with U.S. team guest Michael Jordan.

"Anthony just oozes with confidence and sometimes it can be misconstrued," says Leonard. "But if the guy is not a phenom, then I don't know what one is. Golfwise, he's as mature a 23-year-old as I've ever seen." Added Stockton, "He's a superstar in the making, both with his clubs and emotionally. It's no stretch to say he's the best young player since Tiger."

For all his intangibles, it is Kim's pure mechanics that his peers might envy most. His swing stays beautifully on plane even as he moves through the ball with ferocious speed to an always full finish. "I wish I had that guy's move," the himself technically and athletically gifted Garcia was overheard saying on the practice range last month in Boston. It's an exalted reputation that worries Kim's teacher, Adam Schriber, who knows Kim can still go off the rails just as he did during some scratchy patches in team play with Mickelson, including one that caused them to lose a 4-up lead and a point against Henrik Stenson and Oliver Wilson in the Saturday foursomes. "Because the shape of AK's swing is so solid and the dynamics are so good," said Schriber, "the expectations can get a little unrealistic at times."

Hunter Mahan

But unlike many other great young ball-strikers, Kim can also make putts, the brisk efficiency of his movement on the greens conveying clear purpose. "It's what gives him the whole package," says Stockton, an all-time great with the flat stick. At least one teammate sensed Kim was intimidating to the Europeans. "It was like they were afraid to play him," said Stewart Cink.

In Woods' absence Kim was the U.S. team's alpha dog, but with an important difference. While Woods seems subtly conflicted in a team setting in a way that causes him to keep a slight but discernible distance, Kim immersed in the collective.

He might have been a little too vigorous with the arm raising to whip up the Kentucky crowd, but it seemed the excesses of an innocent sports lover caught up in being part of an epic spectacle. From his gaudy belt buckle -- which for the occasion was inscribed with "USA" rather than "AK" -- to his moderated public statements, Kim was far more "we" than "me." "Phil has taken me under his wing," he said deferentially on Thursday. The truth was, by virtue of talent and sheer moxie, Kim was the most important player on the American side.

But while Kim was garnering more attention, the 26-year-old Mahan might have actually made more progress.

"I think this week is going to help Hunter even more than Anthony," said Leonard, who has known Mahan since he was 13. "Hunter learned a lot last year at the Presidents Cup, but I think he proved a lot to himself this week, especially in the way that he held up under pressure. This week he felt like he belonged, and he really performed."

Mahan's own assessment of his team's performance contained Leonard's idea. "I didn't think we needed to go do something special out there -- just [had] to go play," he said. "I know a lot of guys have gone on to win a major after weeks like this -- Azinger and Couples in particular. I think it helps a lot, and it does, because this is about as pressure-packed as it gets.

"I definitely feel like I gained a lot of experience in a short amount of time," he said. Mahan's week was particularly impressive because he knew that his published comments -- in which he had repeated complaints from some veterans that the event had become a burden -- would make him a target if the U.S. were to lose. "Hunter completely put it behind him and just embraced the team concept completely," said Stockton. "He proved he is really a polite young guy with a lot of character."

Mahan, who has posted several rounds in the low 60s in the last two seasons (such as his first-round 62 at Ridgewood CC in last month's Barclays), is also much admired for his technique, and he combines long and straight off the tee as well as anyone in the game, as well as flag-hunting. "He is just so fearless on hard shots and big putts," says Leonard. "It's why he can go so low. I think this week just means he's going to do that sort of thing more often."

Phil Mickelson

With only one victory in his four years on tour, it's still fair to say Mahan suffers from a relative lack of putting and short-game skill that he will need to get to the next level. But at Valhalla he holed more mid-range putts than perhaps any other American, and in the crucial singles rammed home a 40-foot seagoer on the 17th for birdie in the singles that ensured a half against Paul Casey.

Mahan had opened that match by missing a four-footer for par on the first to go 1 down. But instead of becoming tentative or even panicky on the greens, Mahan went on a sustained run of 10- and 15-footers that kept the explosive Casey at bay. "I stroked it well when I had to," said a quietly proud Mahan afterward, who (though undefeated) would have been undisputed man of the match if he hadn't given Casey an opening to salvage a half by driving into the water on 18.

But by then the U.S. had a firm grip on the leader board, even though veterans Leonard and Mickelson were losing their singles to Robert Karlsson and Justin Rose in the next two matches. While Rose was six under for 16 holes in defeating Mickelson, 3 and 2, it was perplexing to see Mickelson, Azinger's designated veteran horse in the absence of Woods, once again fall short in the Ryder Cup. His 1-2-2 record for the week means he has only two wins in his last 16 Ryder Cup matches.

"Phil played great at some important times," said a loyal Azinger. "His contributions, on and off the course, went well beyond his record."

No question the good Mickelson carried Kim for long stretches at some crucial moments. But the bad Phil still shows up too often, surprising after a year and a half of honing supposedly significant swing changes under Butch Harmon. As much as his supporters tend to point to his putting, it is more the work he leaves himself recovering from wild shots that has flattened Mickelson's career curve and kept him from ever truly threatening for the No. 1 ranking, even with Woods absent.

Indeed, with guys such as Kim and Mahan coming up fast, not to mention a temporarily tired but determined-to-improve Padraig Harrington setting his sights on a career Grand Slam, the 38-year-old Mickelson -- with no individual bounce from his play at the Ryder Cup success to build on -- is going to have to get going to hang on to No. 2.