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Rosaforte: Big Week For Mickelson

September 16, 2008

Phil Mickelson arrived for his seventh Ryder Cup on Monday, putting him one ahead of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, and one behind Billy Casper, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd, for most all-time appearances for the U.S. in this biennial event. His is quite a legacy, still being written.

For Mickelson, this week in Louisville represents a breakout opportunity. With Tiger Woods on the sidelines, this becomes Mickelson's team, his chance for a lead role in golf's greatest drama. He has the most major championships (3) and the most career PGA Tour wins (34) of anybody on either team. He has the potential to infuse this Paul Azinger team with the same leadership qualities Colin Montgomerie gave to Europe for eight straight Cups.

But to do that, Mickelson has to make putts. That's what the Ryder Cup is all about, especially in that 10-foot range, the zone where holes and matches are won and lost. He exited the FedEx Cup playoffs in the midst of a putting slump, looking robotic and lost for confidence. His most demoralizing moment came Saturday at Bellerive during the BMW Championship, when he three-putted from less than five feet on the closing hole, turning a birdie into a bogey and a 69 into a 71.

The look of frustration -- and at times a loss of interest -- has been evident on Mickelson's face. But this week is no time for that. There needs to be a change of attitude by Friday morning, when there are no excuses, when the Europeans are collectively at their best.

But the same could be said for the entire American squad, and its recent history in this event. Europe makes everything on the greens. The U.S. makes nothing. It's been a concurrent theme since 2002. It seems as though the last U.S. player to make a putt that mattered was Justin Leonard's bomb at The Country Club in 1999.

To widen the spotlight beyond just Mickelson, teammates Hunter Mahan and Anthony Kim rank just ahead of him in misses inside 10 feet during the playoffs, with 34, 35 and 36 respectively. What can they do? Maybe it's just as simple as adopting the Vijay Singh-Camilo Villegas strategy of believing they're the best putters in the world. It could be what Lisa Cink said to husband Stewart earlier this year about pretending  you're out there naked in front of the whole gallery. Or perhaps the answer lies in trusting the guidance of vice captain Dave Stockton, who besides being a two-time PGA Champion and the one who orchestrated the U.S.'s "War By The Shore" victory in 1991, is considered one of the best putting coaches in the world.

And not in the technical sense; at this point Mickelson, Mahan and Kim don't need putting lessons. It's a matter of tapping into the old Jackie Burke-ism, "It's not how. It's where."

Where is Mickelson as it relates to his Ryder Cup legacy? His Ryder Cup record is 9-12-4, but he went 0-4-1 at The K Club in 2006 and 1-3 at Oakland Hills in 2004, including an 0-2 record as Tiger Woods' partner and a singles loss to Sergio Garcia. He has lost three straight Ryde4r Cup singles matches, dating back to his pivotal loss to unheralded Welshman Philip Price at The Belfry in 2002.

Kim is expected to be his partner in better ball, the 10th different player Mickelson has teamed with in that format; as for alternate shot, Lefty's best partner, David Toms, did not make Azinger's final dozen. At 38, Mickelson still has 3-4 more Cups before captaincy comes his way. And while Woods made the best point about Ryder Cup career records several years ago -- asking reporters in a news conference if how many of them knew Nicklaus' Ryder Cup record -- there is still the sense that Mickelson wants more out of his career than going 1-5 in this competition.

Those were different times, but for what it's worth, Jack was 5-0-1.

-- Tim Rosaforte