Mickelson brings experience and emotion to Presidents Cup

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Rickie Fowler, Phil Mickelson (Harry How/ Getty Images)

INCHEON, South Korea – Phil Mickelson studied the line of the putt from both sides, and then he stood over an imaginary golf ball about halfway to the hole and gently swung his putter to make sure he had the right read.

And it wasn’t even his shot.

“The first part is going to slide to the right,” he told Presidents Cup rookie Chris Kirk, “and then it’s going to try to move back to the left.”

Kirk narrowly missed the putt, and Mickelson winced.

This was more than just one of his money games on a Tuesday at a big event. Mickelson had yet another rookie under his wing, relishing in his role as the guy who has played the Presidents Cup as many times as the U.S. captain (Jay Haas) and two of his assistants (Fred Couples and Steve Stricker).

“His experience is huge,” Jimmy Walker said. “He’s playing with Chris Kirk and he’s telling him things throughout – the history of his play, little tidbits here, something that might help Chris down the road in the next couple days. So I think that’s what really helps.”

The history of Mickelson in the Presidents Cup is extensive.

He has never missed one since it began in 1994, and this might be the most special of all. He was 30th in the U.S. standings and needed a captain’s pick to join the Americans at the Jack Nicklaus Golf Club Korea. Haas sought the opinion of the players who qualified, and it became an easy choice.

“Across the board, the players were all in when we were texting and talking to them,” Haas said. “The captains, certainly, were all about Phil. … You could say, ‘Well, his play didn’t warrant being a consideration’ and all that. But I don’t know that you can put a value on what he means to the players and the demeanor he brings into the team room.”

He showed that much at the first team dinner Monday night.

Mickelson dressed for the occasion in flag pants, which look like pajama bottoms with a Stars & Stripes pattern.

“I asked him if he was cooking because it looked like something a chef would wear,” Walker said. “American flag pants. It was great.”

For all the incessant trash talking, side bets and laughs, there is a serious side to this Presidents Cup for Mickelson. He is proud of his streak – his 21st consecutive time playing in the Presidents Cup or Ryder Cup – he was as much a player’s pick as a captain’s pick.

“That meant more to me than anything, and I’m appreciative of the chance to have felt how that feels to be wanted by the other players,” Mickelson said. “And it was very emotional for me when I found out. It makes me just want to play hard and so anything I can to help us succeed.”

That hasn’t been a problem for the Americans in the Presidents Cup. They haven’t lost this match against the International team (players from everywhere outside the United States except for Europe) since 1998 at Royal Melbourne, and they have won every time since a tie in South Africa.

Mickelson became the first American to go 0-5 in South Africa in 2003, a forgettable year in which his wife nearly died giving birth to their third child and Mickelson failed to win a PGA Tour event for only the second time in his career. Jack Nicklaus was the captain of that U.S. team, and he marveled later about how Mickelson remained upbeat all week despite not winning a match.

“He is the Alpha dog,” Zach Johnson said. “He does have kind of that mentality of, ‘You know what? I’ve done it and I know what it’s about.’ But there’s also a significant selflessness there. In other words, he knows he’s just 1-12th of the team. When you have a leader that gets that, that’s pretty awesome.”

Mickelson doesn’t see it that way. He just wants to win points.

He has a 20-16-11 record, tied with Tiger Woods for the most points contributed at the Presidents Cup. He doesn’t see his role much differently now, even though he is being looked upon as much as an inspiration and as a Hall-of-Famer with 45 victories worldwide.

“If he wins all his points, he’s a real good leader,” Bubba Watson joked. “No, it’s like having another assistant. He understands what it takes. He’s had the experience. He’s had the bad and the good. When he speaks, everybody listens.”

Even when he’s trying to bring some humor?

“He brings it all,” Watson said. “And if it’s not that funny, you just laugh because you feel bad for him.”