CHASKA, Minn. — Outside the team room Saturday night at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Phil Mickelson stopped to talk. The oldest member of the U.S. Ryder Cup team questioned Tom Watson’s leadership skills two years ago in a brutally public way at Gleneagles and took it upon himself to rewrite the script. The concept of a “task force” was his. So he owned the fallout should the plan not work.
Watson hadn’t wanted input. He thought there had been too much of that in the captaincy of Davis Love III at Medinah in 2012. So what did Mickelson do behind the scenes? He sold the idea of bringing back Love as the front man in hopes of instituting a long-term plan that provided continuity with a task force that included Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, Jim Furyk, Steve Stricker and Tom Lehman.
The concept worked with Love selling the idea of “team” and watching as his squad built a three-point lead going into the Sunday singles at Hazeltine, one less point than the U.S. enjoyed at Medinah. “We’ve always had this closeness,” Mickelson told me last week. “We have it at the Presidents Cup. We’ve had it at the Ryder Cup. We’ve always had this unity and bonding. We’ve had great play at the Presidents Cup, and we’ve had poor play at the Ryder Cup.”
Therein lied the rub. With the PGA Tour running the Presidents Cup, players had more ownership. With the PGA of America running the Ryder Cup, the players never felt like they had control until Mickelson took it upon himself to change the course of Ryder Cup history.
“There’s a glaring difference of the two, especially when you’re on both teams, that’s very easy to identify,” Mickelson said. “It doesn’t take a rocket scientist, but you have to be in there [the team room] to see the difference and know what it is. We’re playing our best golf this week, and it starts with the captain, it starts with leadership.”
Love did an exceptional job of learning not only from his mistakes but from a cast of championship coaches that included Bill Belichick, Roy Williams and John Calipari. And for good measure, Love brought in Mike Eruzione on Saturday night to tell the story of playing for legendary former University of Minnesota hockey coach Herb Brooks in the gold-medal game against Finland in 1980, after the Miracle on Ice upset of Russia. That’s when Brooks said, “Just remember, if you mess up, it will be with you the rest of your lives.”
There would be no messing up this time, no Miracle at Medinah for the Europeans like there was in Chicago. “All of us believe in the task force,” said the best player for the United States, Patrick Reed.
By creating “the right environment,” Mickelson brought out the type of performance in Ryder Cup competition that he believes can last beyond the year he’s expected to captain, 2024 at Bethpage Black. He also did his job by shooting nine under par for a halve in his singles match with Sergio Garcia, closing out a week in which he went 2-1-1.
“I’ve had a lot of fun this week, more fun than you’ll ever imagine,” Mickelson said. “It was so fun to be together, to work together to achieve something like this. We want to take the leadership and build on this in two years. We just don’t abandon this foundation we created this week. We want to build on these memories.”
Editor's Note: This story first appeared in the Oct. 3, 2016 issue of Golf World.