Ryder Cup 2014: Phil Mickelson opens the hostilities with dig at Rory McIlroy

American brings up the ongoing court battle involving world No 1 and Graeme McDowell in press conference

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The Independent Online

The opening shot at the Ryder Cup has been fired. Forget the first tee on Friday, Phil Mickelson formally opened hostilities here with a pantomime swipe at Rory McIlroy.

The pious packaging that routinely envelopes golf in a false air of gentility was shredded with a remarkable barb that lost none of its force for being delivered as banter.

Rejecting the criticism that the United States struggle with ideas of kinship and bonding, Mickelson let rip in his media conference with this observation: “Not only are we able to play together, we also don’t litigate against each other and that’s a real plus, I feel, heading into this week.”

Mickelson was referring to the dispute between McIlroy and his former management company that has inadvertently dragged European team-mate Graeme McDowell into court via the process of disclosure, which threatens to bring into the public domain his confidential contract details.

 

“Ouch,” said the European Tour moderator. “I couldn’t resist, sorry,” Mickelson said.

We await McIlroy’s response, but do not be surprised were he to point out that he has yet to be met in a clubhouse by FBI agents investigating allegations of insider trading. Mickelson denied wrongdoing when approached by men in suits at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio in June this year after his opening round. He has since been cleared of any involvement but following the change in the rules of engagement that Mickelson has initiated here, he can expect the issue to crop up again before the week is out.

Perhaps Mickelson was still rankled by McIlroy’s comments at the Tour Championship in Atlanta a fortnight ago when he remarked that the 44-year-old looked a little tired and, along with Tiger Woods, was entering the last few holes of his career.

Or maybe it is all part of the “Target Rory” strategy the American team have adopted to break the negative cycle that has seen them lose five of the last six Ryder Cups. Though they claim all points gained are of equal value, captain Tom Watson spelled out the merit of a big scalp when purring over the bio-mechanics of the McIlroy swing. 

72-McIlroy-Getty.jpg
Phil Mickelson took the Ryder Cup gloves off with a swipe at Rory McIlroy (Getty)

“He’s the guy, he’s the one we want to take down. You look at ’83 when [Fuzzy] Zoeller played Seve [Ballesteros] first up [in the singles]. He came back from four down to claim a half. That made a huge difference to our team. It changed the dynamic. It was a big momentum swing and we fed off that,” he said.

Watson has made much this week of his own talisman, that all-American exemplar Mickelson. He spoke of his qualities as motivator-in-chief, the go-to leviathan on the front line.  “He’s a leader. He’s the guy that talks. He talks smack, he talks the way you’re supposed to be talking in the locker room. He talks the locker room talk and he gets people talking back to him. That’s what you have to do.

“There’s a lot of pressure. It’s a cauldron of pressure. We’re not unique in the Ryder Cup. You look at the World Cup, the matches in the World Cup, and then rugby and the locker rooms before the finals. There’s banter going back and forth, and there’s always one guy, maybe two guys, who carry it, and they get everybody kind of lightened up, talking back and forth. And that’s the role that Phil is playing.”

Watson is a veteran of four campaigns as a player and one as captain. At 65 he has seen all there is to see in the game, and he brings to the piece a welcome sagacity. But for all his years he is caught in the paradox that bedevils all professional sport, the contradiction between an endeavour that is essentially trivial, of no consequence to anyone, yet at the same time is of great importance in its own terms.

Attempting to put the contest in context Watson fell into the same trap that has claimed previous American captains. He invited two combat veterans to address his team, failing to comprehend that by doing so he has effectively militarised by association what is supposed to be friendly combat.

“We had some men who suffered nearly the ultimate sacrifice for their country, and to be able to speak to the players and the caddies was a wonderful experience for  everybody. It was a special night for people.

“The players, I think to a T, enjoyed the sobriety of the conversation; that, indeed, we are just playing a game, and that there are people out there doing work that very few other people will do in the world. That was the message.”

And then out comes Phil with his Rory sabre-rattling. Just as well it was only banter, eh Phil?

Mickelson did not bother to conceal the thinking behind the American pairings. After playing alongside Keegan Bradley for the second day, he offered unsolicited confirmation that he will partner said Bradley on Friday, just as he did so successfully two years ago at Medinah, where they returned a maximum three points before being rested on Saturday afternoon.

The rest of the couplings followed the same pattern as Tuesday. “We kind of have an idea of who is going to play with whom at the beginning,” Watson said. “I’m pairing the same guys together in the practise rounds, have them get a feel for each other, each other’s golf balls, things like that.” 

On that basis expect Ricky Fowler to team up with Jimmy Walker, Bubba Watson with Webb Simpson, Jim Furyk with Patrick Reed, Matt Kuchar with Jordan Spieth  and Zach Johnson with  Hunter Mahan.

American dreams: Probable US pairings

Likely partnerships:

Fowler and Walker

Watson and Simpson

Furyk and Reed

Kuchar and Spieth

Johnson and Mahan

Mickelson and Bradley

Mickelson and Bradley hold a perfect Ryder Cup record as a pair, winning all three matches together at Medinah two years ago.

2012: Medinah Europe won

Day one foursomes Beat Donald/Garcia 4 & 3

Fourballs Beat McIlroy/McDowell 2 & 1

Day two foursomes Beat Westwood/Donald 7 & 6

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