It was just about a year ago when Phil Mickelson lobbied Fred Couples to make PGA Tour rookie Keegan Bradley a captain’s pick for the U.S. Presidents Cup team. Then Bill Haas won the FedEx Cup, thanks to that miraculous shot from the water on the second playoff hole at the Tour Championship, and Couples chose him over a disappointed 2011 PGA champ.
Jump ahead 12 months and Bradley -- securely among the top eight automatic qualifiers for the 2012 Ryder Cup squad after his Bridgestone Invitational win last week -- returned the favor. He made a strong case on Tuesday for Mickelson’s inclusion in the lineup, even if his mentor failed to qualify on his own.
“I've played with [Mickelson] a bunch, and I think he's playing great,” Bradley told reporters after a practice round in preparation for the defense of his PGA title. “He's ready to win every week. It doesn't matter if he missed the cut or if he played a bad round; he's still going to go out tomorrow and play great. And I think that makes him a great partner in a Ryder Cup or a great partner in a match against your buddies.”
Mickelson, who began the 2012 season with great promise, has broken par just once in his last 13 rounds on the PGA Tour, and his highest tour finish since the Byron Nelson Championship in May was a T43 last week at Firestone. Because of all that, Lefty entered the week at No. 8 in Ryder Cup point standings and will play his first two rounds on Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course under the watchful eye of captain Davis Love III.
Should Mickelson’s struggles continue this week and Hunter Mahan (No. 9), Steve Stricker (No. 10), Jim Furyk (No. 11), or even Brandt Snedeker (who, at No. 13, would need a win to get into the mix) overtake him in the points race, Love could have a difficult choice in determining which four players to select for the team. Compounding Love’s potential quandary would be the fact that, while the 42-year-old Mickelson may have the most Ryder Cup starts of any of those who’ll head to Medinah next month, he also has the most losses (17) of any player in U.S. Ryder Cup history.
There are also some questions about whether Mickelson would accept a captain’s pick if he failed to earn his way onto the team. His recent play suggests a tired golfer. Indeed, he cited “mental fatigue” as the reason for his withdrawal from the Memorial Tournament, he cherishes his family vacations, and Golf Channel analyst Frank Nobilo (himself a rheumatoid arthritis sufferer) wondered whether Lefty’s psoriatic arthritis had affected his game.
“Physically, he just doesn't look 100 percent,” Nobilo said during a conference call last week. “Obviously his game is not sharp. It doesn't look like he's been able to put the time in that he would have liked.”
Nobilo’s colleague, Brandel Chamblee, indicated that age could be a factor, noting that Mickelson’s club-head speed over the past few years had dipped from 120 to 116 mph.
“Four miles an hour doesn't sound like a lot, but that's 12, 15 yards off of the tee, which is cumulative throughout a round,” Chamblee said, adding that Phil had lost a bit off his fastball.
During a Tuesday practice round, Mickelson refuted claims that his health was to blame for his recent poor play.
“My game has not been what I would like it to be the past two months,” Mickelson told Bloomberg News about his condition, which causes joint swelling and stiffness. “Fortunately, it’s not health related.”
Of course, strong play by Mickelson at the PGA could render all of the speculation about his place on the team irrelevant. And whether he’s at his best or not, first-time Ryder Cup contestants like Bradley would certainly welcome the old pro’s steadying influence.
“Phil has kind of taken me under his wing ever since I've been out here,” Bradley said. “The Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup [are] very important to Phil, and he's trying to get us into a team format feel. It's really helped me a lot, and I think he loves to be amongst the guys, and he's such a great team competitor."