Ryder Cup LogoRyder Cup: Team USASeptember 22-24 2006, The K Club, Straffan, County Kildare, Ireland
Story Image Phil Mickelson has been honing his game out of the public eye. (Photo: AP)

Last Hurrah?

Known for frontloading his schedule, Phil Mickelson is the only player on the U.S. Ryder Cup team who hasn't played a PGA Tour event since the team trip to Ireland, and the Ryder Cup likely will be his final event of the season.

12 September 2006

PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. (AP) -- Phil Mickelson headed home from Ireland a few weeks ago in dire need of some rest.

Lefty has finally figured out what works best him in the major championships, and no one can argue with the results. He has won a major each of the last three seasons -- only Tiger Woods has a longer streak over the last 20 years -- by pouring so much effort into his preparation that he is out of gas when the PGA Championship ends in August.

One problem. The Ryder Cup is played in September.

Mickelson is the only player on the American team who has not played a PGA Tour event since the practice session Aug. 28-29 in Ireland, choosing instead to take the last two weeks off and work privately this week to get his game in shape. The Ryder Cup likely will be his last event of the year. Unless he changes his mind, his next tournament will be the Bob Hope Chrysler Classic in January.

"I need a couple of weeks off," Mickelson said after he tied for 54th among 76 players at Firestone. "The best way for me to get ready for the Ryder Cup is to get some rest. I played poorly and I'm tired, too. I'm going to work on my game and get it sharp."

The U.S. team requires nothing less from him.

Tiger Woods is a master at balancing his schedule and had no qualms with Mickelson taking time off to recharge.

"But we need Phil to play well -- we really do," Woods said. "He's one of the leaders of our team. And you're always looking for the leaders of your team to win points."

The three leaders of this American team are Woods, Mickelson and Jim Furyk, who have played in every Ryder Cup since 1997. Mickelson got his start in 1995, going 3-0 in his debut, and he is the only player among those three with a winning record at 9-8-3. Woods is 7-11-2, while Furyk is 4-9-2, with only won victory in the 11 team matches he has played.

Even so, the scrutiny might be stronger than ever on whether Lefty pulls his share of the load.

Woods has won five straight tournaments heading into the HSBC World Match Play Championship, a 16-man field playing 36-hole matches at Wentworth Golf Club outside London. Furyk is coming off a victory in the Canadian Open. He, too, is playing at Wentworth.

Mickelson? That Masters victory seems like a long time ago.

He has contended only twice in the last five months, tying for fourth at the Memorial (three shots out of the lead) and blowing the U.S. Open with a double-bogey on the final hole to tie for second. He was never in serious contention at the British Open -- no surprise there because he rarely plays his best on links courses -- and he faded to a 74 in the final round at the PGA Championship.

U.S. Captain Tom Lehman didn't sound the least bit concerned Tuesday.

"I'm a pretty straight shooter. I tell Phil what I think, and he tells me what he thinks," Lehman said in a telephone interview from New York. "And when he tells me that he'll be ready, I believe him."

Mickelson saunters along with a gee-whiz smile and a tip of the cap, which hides an ultra-competitive spirit. He burns to win, and nothing gets his attention more than a stage on which to show everyone what he can do.

One way or another, he is exciting to watch.

"He understands more than anybody that this Ryder Cup is on a world stage, and the opportunity this team has," Lehman said. "He will be ready as a competitor. It's too enticing to him."

Mickelson began concentrating on the majors in 2004. Since then, he has played 10 times after the PGA Championship, and his best finish was a tie for 19th among 31 players at the '04 Tour Championship. He didn't even show up at the Tour Championship last year, using a Halloween party as his excuse.

As for the Ryder Cup in 2004? That happened to be his worst, going 1-3 and losing both matches while playing with Woods. While neither of them remotely resembled major champions, the lasting image was Mickelson hitting 3-wood on the 18th hole that one-hopped off the fence, costing them the match.

Mickelson switched equipment a week before that Ryder Cup, which became convenient criticism of his poor play. In fact, he was starting to slide right after completing his remarkable run through the majors that year, missing the Grand Slam by a total of five shots.

This is no secret to Mickelson.

A year ago in February, he was asked how to get his game sharp in September when he is worn out by August.

"I have to find a way around that," Mickelson said in a blunt assessment. "I have to accept the fact that I'm tired, but I've got to find a way to bring out my best golf for that event."

He figured it out last year at the Presidents Cup, where he played extremely well in going 3-0-2.

And there's no reason he can't be ready for the Ryder Cup.

For one thing, Mickelson is such a talent that even his "B" game is better than anything Europe has to offer.

And consider what happened last year. Dominant during the West Coast swing, Mickelson was virtually a no-show for five months until the last major arrived. More determined than ever, he went wire-to-wire at Baltusrol to win the PGA Championship.

Perceptions of Mickelson in the Ryder Cup have been skewed by his last performance, another example of the "What have you done for me lately?" culture that pervades sports these days. Until the last Ryder Cup, Mickelson never had a losing record.

"I have played well in the Ryder Cup, but we haven't won, so it doesn't feel like it's been very good," Mickelson said. "Losing four out of five [stinks]. This is an important Ryder Cup for the U.S. team to come out on top."

For that to happen, it's important for the Masters champion to show up.

Copyright 2006 Associated Press. All rights reserved.

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