LOUISVILLE--One of the subthemes of this Ryder Cup is the battle for the putative No. 2 in the world. It takes on added significance because, with Tiger Woods out, it's effectively for the active No. 1.
Even though the next three players on the Official World Golf Ranking behind Woods (16.68 points) are Phil Mickelson (9.14 points) Vijay Singh (7.71) and Padraig Harrington (7.53), it's really between Mickelson and Harrington.
Mickelson has held the No. 2 spot since last year. But Harrington has won the last two majors and is the likely PGA Tour and PGA of America Player of the Year. Meanwhile, Mickelson hasn't played well in a while, his last win coming at the Colonial. (His finishes in this year's majors were T-5 in the Masters, T-18 in the U.S. Open, T-19 in the British Open and T-7 in the PGA.)
Fittingly, Mickelson and Harrington were paired against each other twice on the first day of this week's matches. In the Friday-morning foursomes, with Mickelson partnering Anthony Kim and Harrington paired with Robert Karlsson, the Americans came back from 3 down with six to play to salvage a halve. In a four-ball match in the afternoon, Mickelson and Kim went 3 down after four holes but surged late to beat Harrington and Graeme McDowell, 2 up.
Harrington has been scratchy since winning the PGA, missing the cut in two FedEx Cup events. As NBC's Johnny Miller noted, Harrington's swing looked tired as he continuted to hit a lot of "wipes" to the right. He helped his team in matches with the same kind of clutch putting he exhibited at Royal Birkdale and Oakland Hills, but too often his ballstriking left him with too much to do. In his Saturday-morning foursomes match with Karlsson against Jim Furyk and Kenny Perry, the Europeans were dominated in a 3-and-1 loss.
Mickelson, as has been his wont--especially in this year's majors--was frequently superb but occasionally awful. He played particularly well Friday afternoon in carrying Kim to victory. He picked up where he left off on Saturday morning with Kim against Henrik Stenson and Oliver Wilson, jumping to a 4-up lead after six holes. But then both American power players got wild and completely lost momentum, taking a hard-to-stomach 2-and-1 loss.
Harrington, whose neck has been bothering him, sat out the Saturday-afternoon four-balls. His role on Sunday in the final singles spot against Chad Campbell could be heroic or irrelevant.
Mickelson, meanwhile, had some great moments with Hunter Mahan in their Saturday-afternoon four-ball halve against Stenson and Karlsson, although his missed six-footer to win the 17th hole might haunt. But being the only American to play in every match, Mickelson has underscored his position as team leader, and, going into Sunday at least (when he will play Justin Rose), he's still the putative No. 2.