It provided the story of this and plenty other golfing years. Phil Mickelson, only weeks short of his 51st birthday, strode to US PGA Championship glory at Kiawah Island as giddy crowds engulfed the 72nd fairway. Mickelson had done his bit for ageing sportspeople everywhere by virtue of a freakish result on account of form alone.
Mickelson balanced South Carolina “realism” – the concept that he may never win again with the potential to go on a streak. By July and the Open Championship, a dejected Mickelson departed after 36 holes. “I’m having some challenges staying sharp,” he said. His focus, one assumes, was hardly helped by a needless and very public spat with a local reporter in Detroit immediately before he signed for rounds of 80 and 72 at Royal St George’s.
He remains newsworthy because of what lies ahead in the remainder of this golfing year. Mickelson has played in a dozen consecutive Ryder Cups since 1995 and is, therefore, a part of the event’s fabric. Yet it increasingly looks the case that, despite being a current major champion, he will not form part of Steve Stricker’s team at Whistling Straits. Mickelson appears resigned to that fate. “I haven’t had a top-10 outside of the PGA,” Mickelson said when en route to a share of 17th in Memphis last weekend. “You can’t take somebody that is that inconsistent.”
Indeed, Mickelson’s PGA Tour finishes since January make stunning reading. Cut, T53, Cut, T35, T25, Cut, T21, Cut, 69, 1, Cut, T62, T61, T74, Cut, T17. To say Kiawah is the outlier is something of an understatement. Even more so, that is, when the calibre of those Mickelson held at bay is considered; Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen shared second.
A Ryder Cup minus Mickelson seems hard to imagine, just as inevitably Stricker will come under at least an element of external pressure to pick him. Stricker, it must be remembered, has six wildcard selections at his disposal. The PGA of America preside over the Ryder Cup; Mickelson is their 2021 champion. The two need not inevitably go hand in hand – just ask John Daly – but the optics are not entirely favourable if a major winner crowned only four months earlier finds himself out of the picture.
Stricker has spoken effusively about having Tiger Woods involved in a background capacity in Wisconsin, should the 15-times major winner be physically able, but intriguingly there has been no such hint about Mickelson. Early this year Mickelson said it would be an honour to serve as a vice-captain but refused to explain further, on the basis that he harboured playing hopes. Removing Mickelson from the fold entirely would seem curious, not least because he appears nailed-on as a Ryder Cup captain of the not-so-distant future.
Phil Mickelson celebrates winning his fourball match at the Ryder Cup in Valhalla in 2008. Photograph: Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images
The relationship between Mickelson and the Ryder Cup is already a fraught one. He won a singles match in vain on his debut, as Europe prevailed at Oak Hill, and did likewise in 1997. Mickelson sampled victory for the first time two years later, with his infamous – and disastrous – pairing with Woods next in 2004. Justin Rose’s victory over Mickelson was crucial to the miracle of Medinah in 2012, with Lefty taking very public aim at the US captain, Tom Watson, after a trouncing at Gleneagles in 2014.
Amid much talk of Mickelson-inspired revolution in the US camp thereafter, Europe still eased to a win in Paris last time out in 2018 with two high-profile members of the visiting party involved in a Sunday night fracas. Any thoughts of succession planning are undermined by the appointment of Davis Love III, Ryder Cup captain in 2012, as the 2022 Presidents Cup captain.
Mickelson’s standalone Ryder Cup record is not a case for selection. He has won 18 of 47 matches. The six-times major winner has creativity and shot-making capacity which may be ideal for Whistling Straits – where it would be normal for Stricker to insist on light rough, thereby assisting wayward shots – but the scale of Mickelson’s poor golf is surely ominous enough to count out such a gamble. At 32nd in the world rankings, Mickelson is only one place behind Lee Westwood but even that element is skewed by the fact the former was 116th before US PGA success. Mickelson now has a tiny window to deliver something even approaching a decent run, thereby perhaps affording Stricker food for thought.
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American galleries fawn over Mickelson but even that would wear thin if he was an obvious Whistling Straits passenger. With Woods in the midst of private recovery from a serious car accident, we are faced with the very real prospect that neither he nor Mickelson may play in a Ryder Cup again. Both have won majors since the start of 2019.
In Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Justin Thomas and Xander Schauffele, Stricker has serious talent at his disposal. A revived Jordan Spieth for now sits just outside the automatic qualifying places, as do Patrick Reed, Patrick Cantlay, Daniel Berger and Harris English. The Ryder Cup need not be the sole domain of the young but the vigour in that group surely renders an out-of-sorts Mickelson unnecessary. Coming so soon after the greatest of personal highs, and despite his self-deprecation, for the 51-year-old this promises to be a troubling scenario.