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Phil Mickelson v Tom Watson: when the civil game turned ugly at the Ryder Cup

Zinger, of course, is Paul Azinger, America’s only winning captain this century. A maverick in the most generous sense of the word, Azinger implemented a system in Kentucky which divided his team into pods of four and handed them the responsibility to look after each other. With Nick Faldo simply expecting his team to perform as well as they had in the two previous matches, the contrast between the two captaincies had never been as stark. Until Gleneagles, that is.

Still, because of the timings of deadlines and the geography of the course, most of the journalists assembled in the press room as Tom Watson and his 12 players trooped in were unaware of Mickelson’s comments. The opening 10 questions were normal fare, asking Watson why America had lost again – “we couldn’t overcome being beaten 7-1 in the foursomes” – and what they needed to do to prevail – “play better”.

The 11th question asked for anyone who was on the 2008 team to explain “what had worked then and what hasn’t worked since?”. It was at this point that Mickelson, sat on the very end of the row, broke his silence. “One, was he [Azinger] got everybody invested in the process: who they were going to play with, who the picks were going to be, who was going to be in their pod,” Mickelson said.

“And the other thing Paul did really well was he had a real game plan; how we were going to go about playing together; golf ball, format, what we were going to do if so-and-so is playing well, if so-and-so is not playing well: we had a real game plan. We use that same process in the Presidents Cup and we do really well. Unfortunately, we have strayed from a winning formula, and we need to consider maybe getting back to that formula that helped us play our best.”

The “real game plan” comment was pointed, as was the tone. Mickelson knew exactly what he was doing, but cleverly played dumb when the next questioner suggested: “That felt like a pretty brutal destruction of the leadership that’s gone on this week”. Mickelson said: “Oh, I’m sorry you’re taking it that way. I’m just talking about what Paul Azinger did to help us play our best. You asked me what I thought we should do going forward to bring our best golf out and I go back to when we played our best golf and try to replicate that formula.” Then when asked if that had not happened that week, Mickelson replied: “Uh, no. Nobody here [of the players] was involved any decision. So, no.”

By now the atmosphere was tingling. Hunter Mahan sat next to Mickelson with a disbelieving look on his face. Other players fidgeted. For his part, Watson stared straight ahead, his steely expression unwavering. Watson denied that Mickelson had been disloyal, but his eyes told a different story. As did at least one of his uncompromising statements. “Listen, the Europeans kicked our butt,” he said. “That’s the bottom line – they were better players this week.”

Watson was obviously angry and at the back of the press conference room, Ted Bishop, the president of the PGA of America, the organisation which runs the Ryder Cup in the US, wore a stunned look and was later seen to storm out. By then, Jim Furyk had been asked for his opinion about the Mickelson and Watson “back and forth”. “Ah, gee thanks, “ Furyk said. “Just sitting over here minding my own business.” Wisely, Furyk refused to commit, saying he respected both men and if he knew the winning formula “we would have sorted this s––– out a long time ago”. And so the conference finished with tension and recrimination hanging in the air.

Initially the mood was one of disgust at Mickelson for belittling one of the game’s most respected figures. Mickelson had been upset by being benched on Saturday and the immediate perception was of petty payback. “That was as close to a one-man mutiny as I’ve seen,” said Brandel Chamblee, the American pundit going on to accuse Mickelson of “corrupting the Ryder Cup experience”. In Britain, Colin Montgomerie led the condemnation. “Should we go into this one hour after we’ve been defeated? The answer is a flat no,” he said. “You support your captain under all circumstances.” And although many agreed with Montgomerie and still do – Rickie Fowler, Mickelson’s team-mate recently expressed the belief “stuff that happens in the team-room should say there” – as the details emerged of Watson’s behaviour the tide began to turn.

On the Saturday evening, with his team trailing 10-6, Watson had mocked the players’ gift to him of a replica Ryder Cup signed by every member of the team. Watson said the gift meant nothing to him if the players did not win him the real Ryder Cup on Sunday. He told them they “stank in foursomes” and ridiculed some of the Europe players they were to play in the singles.

This is when Mickelson first intervened, trying to introduce some much-needed optimism by delivering a rousing speech, with his back towards Watson. And then, after he had beaten Stephen Gallacher on Sunday, Mickelson’s temperament snapped when he heard that Watson had scolded some of the players for losing their singles. He and others such as Tiger Woods had never wanted Watson parachuted in above the contemporary candidates. Mickelson’s worst fears were proven correct when Watson declined to communicate with the players, making them feel ostracised.

Bishop, the official seduced by reputation into appointing Watson, recognised the disconnect and despite his comments on that Sunday – he spoke of his “disappointment” in Mickelson – was soon announcing the formation of a Ryder Cup “Task Force” to suggest solutions. Mickelson, Woods, Fowler and Furyk are on this panel, which has met once and will do so again in February, with Fred Couples likely to be appointed as captain.

However, Bishop is out of the equation. The 60-year-old became the first president in the PGA of America’s 98-year history to be dismissed. After hearing that Ian Poulter had questioned Watson’s captaincy, Bishop had used social media to accuse the Englishman of “squealing like a little girl”. He was dismissed within 24 hours. His dramatic fall could be traced back to that astonishing press conference. The US fans are praying that Mickelson’s unprecedented rant produces something rather more positive.

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