CHASKA, Minn. — His shirt soaked from spraying champagne in a rare Ryder Cup victory, Phil Mickelson already was looking ahead at how to win the next one.
Not only was this a scene from Sunday at Hazeltine, it was eight years ago at Valhalla.
Paul Azinger was in charge of sweeping changes for the U.S. team. He demanded a new qualifying system based on PGA Tour earnings instead of the archaic method of awarding points for top 10s. He doubled the number of captain’s picks to four players. He broke up his 12 players into three pods based largely on personalities.
It worked so well — a 16½-11½ victory over Europe in 2008 — that when someone asked Azinger if he’d like to do it again, Mickelson didn’t give him a chance to answer.
“Zinger in 2010,” Mickelson said that day.
It didn’t happen. For too many years, the PGA of America treated the Ryder Cup captaincy as a lifetime achievement award. It would be wrong to assume the Americans immediately embarked on another losing streak because of the captain. They lost in Wales because they failed to win any of the six matches in the final team session and never caught up. That’s just bad golf. It happens.
Mickelson, however, picked up on something at Valhalla.
Why abandon success?
That was his point when he publicly criticized the authoritative style of Tom Watson during that awkward news conference at Gleneagles in 2014 after a third straight U.S. loss, its eighth dating to 1995.
Mickelson wondered why the Americans got away from player input that worked so beautifully under Azinger in 2008 and worked every year in the Presidents Cup.
“I have been a part of 10 successful Presidents Cups and eight losing Ryder Cups,” he said Sunday during the first of several celebrations. “And it’s very easy to see what the difference is. When put in the right environment, the U.S. team brought out some of their most amazing golf. We’re bringing home the Ryder Cup because of it.”
Love for captain in 2018?
There were snickers all week that Love wasn’t even the captain. This was as much Mickelson’s team, because it was Mickelson who risked his public image at Gleneagles by calling out Watson, a revered figure in golf, even though his message was aimed at the PGA of America.
Tiger Woods was on that Ryder Cup Task Force geared toward getting players more involved and had strongest influence of any of the five assistants. Steve Stricker was another assistant captain. He will be the captain of the Presidents Cup team next year that will feature many of the same players.
This is what Mickelson wanted in 2008. This is what the Americans have to do now if they want to catch up to Europe.
The series now stands at 26-13-2 in favor of the United States, though that includes too many lean years when Britain was rebuilding from World War II. The modern Ryder Cup dates to 1979 when continental Europe was invited, and Europe has a 10-8-1 advantage since then.
Mickelson had said the success of the task force could not be measured by results at Hazeltine. This was not about the next Ryder Cup but the next 10 of them.
He knew all along that wasn’t the case, which is why the pressure he faced — not to mention the rest of the Americans — was greater than ever.
“The pressure started when some dumbass opened his mouth two years ago in the media center,” Mickelson said, self-deprecating in his moment of glory.
The pressure doesn’t go away.
It was a relief to win, but the Americans haven’t won back to back in the Ryder Cup since 1993, the year Jordan Spieth was born.
It’s not about who’s the next captain. It could be Mickelson, Stricker, Woods or Jim Furyk. It doesn’t matter if the final captain’s pick is five days before the matches begin or if all four are made at the same time.
What matters — what Europe has had all these years — is that players feel as much a part of the process as the people running the Ryder Cup.
“We need to build on this. Otherwise, it’s all for naught,” Mickelson said. “Yes, it’s great that we had success this week. But it’s not about one year or one Ryder Cup. It’s about a multitude, for decades to come.”
Timing is everything, and such was the case Sunday night. Love reached for a bottle of champagne as Mickelson spoke and popped the cork. The sound made Mickelson stop, and he looked over at Love with a smile.
“That’s my cue to shut up,” Mickelson said.
It was time for an American celebration in the Ryder Cup, and one could sense the strong belief they wouldn’t have to wait eight years for another one.