CHASKA, Minn. — Two days before the Ryder Cup, Phil Mickelson went back 12 years to drive home a point that the Americans are prepared to play their best golf.
And along the way, he disparaged yet another former captain.
This time, his target was Hal Sutton.
Mickelson was the catalyst for change at the last Ryder Cup when he publicly questioned Tom Watson’s heavy-handed style — with Watson sitting at the same table — after another American loss at Gleneagles. That led to the PGA of America creating a task force allowing for player involvement.
“When you look back on what the difference is, when players are put in a position to succeed, more often than not they tend to succeed,” Mickelson said. “And when they are put in positions to fail, most of the time they tend to fail.”
In a conversation Wednesday on how much a captain matters in the Ryder Cup, Mickelson looked across the room and said, “Let me give you an example, if I may.”
He went back to 2004 when the Americans suffered their worst loss ever in the Ryder Cup at Oakland Hills. Nothing illustrated their failure more than when U.S. captain Hal Sutton put Mickelson and Tiger Woods together for the first time. They lost two matches in one day.
Mickelson was lampooned that week for practicing on an adjacent course as he tried to adjust to the golf ball used by Woods.
“We ended up not playing well. Was that the problem? I mean, maybe,” Mickelson said. “But we were told two days before that we were playing together, and that gave us no time to work together and prepare.”
Mickelson said having to learn how to hit a different golf ball forced him to abandon his own preparations to get sharp.
“In the history of my career, I have never ball-tested two days prior to a major,” Mickelson said. “It doesn’t allow me to play my best. What allows me to play my best is to learn the course, sharpen my touch on the greens, sharpen my chipping out of the rough and ball-striking and so forth. Instead, I’m taking four or five hours, and I’m out trying to learn another ball to allow us to play our best.”
Mickelson said he wasn’t trying to knock Sutton. He said he liked how decisive Sutton was that week.
“But that’s an example of starting with the captain. That put us in a position to fail. And we failed monumentally, absolutely,” he said. “But to say, ‘Well, you just need to play better,’ that is so misinformed. Because you will play how you prepare.”
Sutton was bemused that Mickelson would bring that up now.
“My God, somebody’s got to be the fall guy,” he told Golfweek magazine. “If it needs to be me, I can be that. I don’t have anything to say to that. My God. The world saw what happened. They saw it. I didn’t have to cover it up. … I find it amusing that that’s an issue at the 2016 Ryder Cup. I think Phil better get his mind on what he needs to have it on this week instead of on something that happened 10 years ago. …
“It couldn’t be their fault,” he said. “It had to be somebody else’s fault. It had to be Hal Sutton’s fault. Had to be.”
U.S. captain Davis Love III said Mickelson was only trying to set the record straight because “some analysts just keep bringing it up over and over and over again,” though Mickelson mentioned Oakland Hills unprompted in his news conference.
And Mickelson failed to mention that he switched equipment from Titleist to Callaway a week before the matches.
“Hal was an incredible captain,” said Love, who played on that team and went 1-3-1. “I think Phil is looking forward to what’s happened over the last year and we’ve learned a lot from all of our past captains on how we need to do this together.”
He said Sutton was with the U.S. team on Tuesday night and “it was an inspiration to see him.”
Mickelson is more optimistic than ever that the Americans can end two decades of futility against Europe, which has won eight of the last 10 times. Mickelson is playing his record 11th straight Ryder Cup, qualifying for every one of those teams, yet he has been on the winning side only twice.
Two years ago, he was visibly angry after the loss at Gleneagles about the U.S. getting away from what worked under Paul Azinger in a rare 2008 victory, and what seems to work every year at the Presidents Cup against an international team that is not nearly as formidable as Europe.
Love was captain at Medinah in 2012 when the Americans had a 10-6 lead going into singles, only to win three of the 12 singles matches as Europe rallied to win. Mickelson and Woods were part of that task force that agreed to bring Love back.
“This is a year where we feel as though Captain Love has been putting us in a position to succeed,” Mickelson said. “He’s taken input from all parties. He’s making decisions that have allowed us to prepare our best and play our best, and I believe that we will play our best.”