Ryder Cup Day 1: Blazing Red Turns To Bonny Blue

Confession time.  The Ryder Cup has always been a tad problematic for yours truly here at Random Towers.  On account of the fact that my favourite golfer plays for the other team.  And he’s not just any player either.  He’s a major player, a big name, a Ryder Cup regular.  The sort of player you need to want to lose if you want your team to win.  I spend the whole year rooting for him at every golf tournament he plays and then for 3 days once every two years, I need him to lose.  Badly.  Ambiguous or what?

Obviously, we at Random Towers support Europe, but my favourite player is Phil Mickelson of the USA (not to mention the soft spot for Dustin Johnson and a confusing interest-hate spot for Jordan Spieth).  Also not mentioning that the heir apparent to big Phil is Rory McIlroy, poster boy for the European team.  So of course, inevitably, they had to be pitted against each other in Friday’s opening morning foursomes at Hazeltine.

Now, illustrious player he may be but Phil Mickelson hasn’t exactly covered himself in Ryder Cup glory.  Aside from an uninspiring playing record, there was the unedifying criticism of losing USA captain and everyone’s old favourite, Tom Watson, two years ago.  Earlier this week, he continued his unnecessary bad captaincy critique, this time dredging up old wounds from way back in 2004 when grumbling about how the then captain Hal Sutton had the temerity to pair him with Tiger Woods when there was very little love lost between them.  Come on, Phil.  I love you man, but move on already.  Phil was in need of some actual Ryder Cup points if he wanted to earn some redemptive brownie points with golf fans.  So who to support – Phil or Rory?

The dithering lasted until the first partisan cries of ‘OOOHSA’ ‘OOOHSA’.  Danny Willett’s vexatious brother may have been very wrong to write his incendiary article mocking the unruly American golfing gallery, but he did have a point.  They are notorious for their lack of sportsmanship during Ryder Cups.  The European fans, to give them their due, are fanatical but fair.  The Americans are just fanatical – about USA.  Great if you happen to support USA, but incredibly aggravating if you don’t.

They were in their element as red dominated the board, with the US team whitewashing Europe by winning all four of the morning games, with Phil and partner Ricky Fowler coming back from 2 down with 4 to play to win 1 up on the last against Rory and debutant Andy Sullivan.  Of course, I was happy (and relieved) for Phil, but miffed for Rory and Europe that they had thrown it away towards the end.  Thankfully, there was no conflict in the afternoon as Phil was rested for the fourballs.  The Europeans must have enjoyed a good lunch because they came storming back.  The rowdy home crowd was temporarily subdued as Europe won three out of the four matches, with only Brandt Snedeker’s fire hot putter saving the Americans from being whitewashed themselves.  It was poetic that Rory McIlroy should score the final point with a thrilling eagle on the 16th to bring Europe back into contention.  Rory had been getting wound up by the factional crowd all day so appeared determined to take pleasure in silencing them.  After he landed the winning putt, he bowed theatrically to the muted gallery before punching the air emphatically.  Point made, as well as gained.

Unfortunately for me, guess who’s up against whom in the opening match of tomorrow morning’s foursomes?  Yep, it’s  Phil v Rory Part II.  If they end up facing each other in the singles, I will cry.

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Mickelson Magic Not Enough To Win Open

Last Thursday, he came within a whisker of doing what no one has ever done before in the history of golf: shooting a 62.  On the 18th green, his ball lipped the hole and somehow stayed out.  It should have been a moment to savour, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

Fast forward to Sunday: he shot a final round 65, -6 under for the day, 4 birdies, an eagle and no dropped shots, playing one of the greatest rounds of golf that would have won 140 out of the previous 144 Opens, but Phil Mickelson was left disappointed.  So near and yet…

It must be seem very strange to have played one of the greatest tournaments of your career, and taken part in an epic final round duel that will go down in golfing history, yet end up feeling like you have got the booby prize.  The golfing gods were not with Phil Mickelson at Royal Troon.  In hindsight, that should have been obvious from what happened on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have shot that history making 62 on Thursday.  If the gods had been with him, he would have holed the 2nd rather than hit the pin and eagled the 16th rather than miss by centimetres on Sunday.  Phil was destined to be the nearly man, the what could have been man, at Troon.

But what a ride he gave us.  That’s the thing with mercurial geniuses.  You just never know what you’re gonna get.  All you know is it won’t be predictable, and it won’t be ordinary.  Mickelson does things with a golf ball that others didn’t know was possible.  He gets into trouble, he gets out of trouble.  One moment you are tearing your hair out in frustration as yet another wayward tee shot nearly lands in the next county; the next you are slapping your forehead in disbelief as a ball buried deep in the rough or hiding behind a tree is miraculously clubbed out to within a few feet of the pin to save the day.  Yep, life is never dull with Phil the Thrill.

On Sunday, in that jaw dropping final round showdown, Phil was playing against the golfing equivalent of the Terminator.  Henrik Stenson simply would not go away.  He just kept coming at Phil.  He was relentlessly consistent; relentlessly finding fairways, relentlessly hitting greens, relentlessly making birdies, and Phil needed all his Houdini style magical brilliance and powers of recovery just to stay in touch.

In the end, it took a monster putt of 45 ft on the 15th from Henrik Stenson to break Phil Mickelson’s resolve.  Strangely, it’s not the first time that’s happened to Phil.  In the legendary 2012 Ryder Cup, dubbed the Miracle of Medinah, Mickelson was 1 up with 2 to play in his singles match against Justin Rose, when Rose unbelievably birdied a 40ft bomb from the edge of the green to draw level, and then went on to birdie the last and win the match.  It took a miracle putt to beat Phil Mickelson that day.  And it took a miracle putt for Henrik Stenson to finally wrench the Open from Phil Mickelson on Sunday.

Even then, he still needed some more help from those obliging golfing gods.  Mickelson earned himself an eagle opportunity on the 16th that just missed the hole by a whisker.  Then, on the 18th, with the Open seemingly in the bag, Stenson’s final drive trundled alarmingly towards the infamous Norman bunker (more quicksand than bunker) but dribbled to a halt on the edge.  Had Mickelson’s dropped in the hole and Stenson’s dropped in the bunker, who knows what might have been.  But the Claret Jug wasn’t Phil’s to win.  For Henrik Stenson would not be denied.  His steely resolve melted Mickelson’s magic.  Stenson birdied 4 out of the last 5 holes to end with an -8 under par 63, the lowest total to win a Major, and his final total score of -20 was the lowest scored to win the Open, eclipsing Tiger Woods’ -19 total at St Andrews in 2000.

It was a stupendous performance from the stoic Swede (are there any other kind?) and he was a deserved winner of the Claret Jug.  But Phil Mickelson surely wins the prize for having the most surreal tournament.  When he thinks back on this Open, he probably won’t know whether to laugh or cry.  It seems somehow apt, because golfing with Phil has always been a bittersweet experience.  A sweet and sour dish of brilliance and frustration, but never bland.  And once tasted, never forgotten.