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Ryder Cup vets take rookies under their wings

Allan Henry-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

Since bursting onto the PGA Tour scene with two wins (including a major) last year, Keegan Bradley has made no secret of the fact that he worships at the shrine of his idol, fellow U.S. Ryder Cupper Phil Mickelson. Indeed, the 2011 PGA champ’s face lights up whenever he talks about how much the 40-time tour winner, who will make his ninth Cup appearance this week, has helped him adjust to life in the big leagues.

With his first Ryder Cup start looming this week, it was no surprise that Bradley said he would hang on each and every piece of advice his mentor had to offer about how to navigate the competitive cauldron of the biennial contest.

"Phil's always been a big help to me," Bradley, who has played several practice rounds with Mickelson and would make a natural partner for Lefty in the upcoming tilts, told during the recent Deutsche Bank Championship. "I'm sure I'll talk to him a lot about everything that goes into that week. I'm going to lean on him a lot."

No doubt, Bradley will not be alone in seeking wisdom from his elders. For sure, U.S. captain Davis Love III encouraged the four freshmen -- Bradley, FedEx Cup winner Brandt Snedeker, U.S. Open champ Webb Simpson, and Jason Dufner -- to seek any guidance they could glean from grizzled Ryder Cup vets like Mickelson, Tiger Woods, Jim Furyk and Steve Stricker.

Love, himself, has mentored Snedeker, and Simpson said last week that Furyk had dispensed some old-school wisdom to his young charge as well.

“That’s ... one of the reasons that Jim Furyk's on the team,” Love told reporters Monday. “This is his eighth Ryder Cup and he's the experienced veteran that a guy like Webb needs to go to. They will come to us for some things, but they will go talk to the Tiger Woodses and the Steve Strickers and Jim Furyks about, ‘what do I do now; I don't want to embarrass myself....’

“You need those guys, that leadership,” Love averred, noting that when he was a Ryder Cup newbie, he sought the same type of counsel from players like Tom Kite, Ray Floyd, Lanny Wadkins and Curtis Strange.

“Kite took me under his wing and played with me three times and made it easy for me, explained how the ropes go,” said Love, who expected the same kind of help from the old hands on his 2012 team.

To be sure, even the captains require mentoring from those who have gone before them. Love, for example, learned the dos and don’ts of his new job from 2008 Ryder Cup chief Paul Azinger, who led the Americans to their last victory, as well as other captains of yore.

“Paul has given us, not just me, but our assistant captains and some of the players, a lot of advice and a lot of great advice. He grabbed my caddie, Jeff Weber, last night on the way into the hotel and Jeff came in to dinner and sat down and goes, ‘You're not going to believe all the stuff Paul just told me,’” Love said.

“He's so fired up and so passionate about The Ryder Cup. ... It's really incredible how much thought and passion he put into it, and I could tell you 10 or 12 things we're going to do,” Love added. “The past captains have been incredible supporting me and my team, helping us out and giving us advice."

European skipper Jose Maria Olazabal recounted how the late Seve Ballesteros lifted him up at Muirfield Village in 1987, Olazabal’s inaugural Ryder Cup.

“He made clear to [captain] Tony Jacklin that he wanted to play with me,” Olazabal recalled. “I will never forget that little walk from the putting green to the first tee -- I was shaking like a leaf. You know, it was huge crowds, very loud, similar to what we are going to see here this week.

“So I kept my head down, and he approached me as we were walking on to the first tee. He looked at me, and said, ‘Jose Maria, you play your game, I'll take care of the rest,’” Olazabal said with a laugh, no doubt remembering that he went 3-1 as Ballesteros’ partner (3-2 overall in the Europeans' 15-13 cakewalk over the U.S.) in his initiation to Ryder Cup play. “And he did.”

That type of coaching plays such a vital role in professional golf that the U.S. tour partnered with one of its sponsors a few years back to offer a documentary film series about golf and mentorship. In no other setting, however, are such relationships as critical as they are in the Ryder Cup. Team matches require players who are used to going it alone help each other read putts and figure out distances.

While Furyk made it clear he was “not going to tell [his first-time teammates] how to play golf,” the 42-year-old acknowledged the benefits of turning to those who had been there and done that.

“As an individual, it's sometimes difficult to step into a new situation and know what to expect,” Furyk said Tuesday. “In a team atmosphere, you've got people there to kind of help you out and let you know and I think make you feel comfortable.”

It’s not always rookies who need bucking up; even the old guys can use a comforting arm around the shoulder at times as well, as Furyk could attest. Though they’re the same age, Mickelson offered more than that when he helped his 2011 Presidents Cup teammate regain some of the confidence he had lost during a season in which he struggled to just four top 10 finishes after winning the FedEx Cup a year earlier.

“I have a feeling he probably asked to play with me because I felt like he could get a lot out of me,” Furyk said after completing a perfect 5-0-0 week and leading the U.S. to victory over the international team at Royal Melbourne. “We have known each other for a long time, we are good friends, and he's got a great leadership quality in these events, and you know, I struggled this year and he kind of took me under his wing and kind of boosted my confidence.”

Mickelson was also the one to reach out to Hunter Mahan when the latter dissolved into tears during the press conference after his Ryder Cup team lost to the Europeans in 2010.

Furyk acknowledged Mickelson’s skills as someone who could help calm the nerves of rookies like Bradley.

“Keegan and Phil are good buddies, so I know Phil is there for Keegan and that's his veteran he'll lean on,” Furyk said. “They are good friends.”

For his part, Furyk was not so certain he was that go-to guy, noting that Bubba Watson referring to him as a “quarterback” rattled his nerves a tad, “because I’m not sure what the plays are and I’m going to have to call them.”

Still, he would not shy away from offering practical input to anyone who asked or seemed to need it.

“It's just a little thing here or there that could help or may trigger a guy,” he said. “As a veteran player, I try to step out of what's going on inside the team room and sit back and watch and look for some body language.

“When you're on the golf course and a guy is hanging his head, you can tell he's upset about the way he played -- just a comment here or there to relax them and let them know we are going to need them the next day,” he said. “Just letting the guys know what to expect....It's just a little, maybe a positive shot here or there that can help out and give them a jump start.”