Phil Mickelson yesterday claimed a singularly unenviable distinction, becoming the most prolific American loser in the 83-year history of the Ryder Cup. For multiple winners, Americans have a peculiar adjective: the winningest. But with Ian Poulter and Martin Kaymer consigning Mickelson and his partner Rickie Fowler to defeat in the second round of fourball matches, the 40-year-old left-hander, with 17 losses, replaced Raymond Floyd in the record books as the 'losingest'.
Moreover, Mickelson is one of only two players on the American team, along with the rookie Dustin Johnson, yet to trouble the scorers at this Ryder Cup. A mighty reputation precedes the world No 2 and four-times major champion on to every tee, yet so far he has failed dismally to live up to it, performing erratically with his driver and on the greens looking uncharacteristically vulnerable inside 10ft. It was his beloved lob wedge, with which he is a maestro no less than the late Stephane Grappelli with a violin bow, that tended to get him out of trouble yesterday afternoon. But not sufficiently to keep Poulter and Kaymer at bay. Despite a spirited US fightback from three-down after seven holes to all-square after 13, the Anglo-German pair prevailed.
This is Mickelson's eighth consecutive appearance in the Ryder Cup, a record matched only by Billy Casper between 1961 and 1975. And, in fairness, he has also notched up some famous wins; in fact, at Oak Hill in 1995, as a rookie, he scored three points out of three and, with his captain this week, Corey Pavin, hammered Bernhard Langer and Per-Ulrik Johansson in the opening fourballs. Strangely, though, as Mickelson has become more experienced in Ryder Cup matchplay, he has enjoyed less success.
On occasion, he has been ill-served by his captains. At Oakland Hills in 2004, Hal Sutton had the bright idea of teaming up the world's best two players in Mickelson and Tiger Woods, but the scheme backfired spectacularly. The antipathy between Mickelson and Woods has been well-chronicled, and doubtless exaggerated at times, but the pair's body language that opening day made it clear that it was no media fantasy. They strode the fairways in the spirit of Captain Mainwaring and Warden Hodges, serving the same cause but not remotely as comrades. In the morning fourballs, Woods and Mickelson lost to Colin Montgomerie and Padraig Harrington, and in the afternoon foursomes to Darren Clarke and Lee Westwood. Mickelson finished that year's contest with one point and at the K-Club in 2006 had even less joy, scoring just a half. Even in the USA's emphatic victory at Valhalla two years ago he registered only a single outright win.
Woods is usually the American player whose commitment to the Ryder Cup is questioned but, according to one insider, Mickelson's recent attitude has been the more disappointing. Certainly, his golf these last three days has frequently seemed lacklustre, lifted only by his exquisite touch around – but not on – the greens. He looks like a fellow from San Diego, California, who is not entirely sure how he has wound up in a damp Welsh valley in October. It's not as though he's even getting paid to be here. Although a vivid rainbow over the River Usk illuminated his fighting birdie on the long ninth yesterday, there was no pot of gold. The Ryder Cup is played for honour only, and it is perhaps significant that two of the US team's more misfiring players here at Celtic Manor are the two men most used to claiming their honour as individuals, along with a huge cheque. Which is not to say that Woods and Mickelson are only in it for the money, or even that they do not yearn with all their hearts to retain the cup, but there must be some reason why they are so much less formidable in team uniform than when they pick their own outfits.
Meanwhile, although sympathy for Pavin, the bellicose little US captain, does not come naturally to a European, one feels a little for him in the case of Mickelson. It made perfect sense to pair the vastly experienced campaigner first with Dustin Johnson and then with young Fowler, yet in each case his has been a distinctly shaky guiding hand. If anything, it was Poulter who offered the youngster more avuncular support yesterday, rebuking a boorish fan who yelled "well done, Ricky" following a short missed putt on the eighth. Poulter, indeed, looked like the very antithesis of Mickelson all the way round, doffing his cap at every outbreak of "there's only one Ian Poulter" and generally appearing as if he was having the time of his life.