Ryder Cup is Phil Mickelson’s cup of coffee

By Art Spander

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — The critic had mellowed. Or more accurately, swallowed. “The coffee here is unbelievable, isn’t it?” said Phil Mickelson, not waiting for an answer, as if anyone dared disagree.

“The chocolate,” Mickelson continued, “the food. I had two pieces of bread the other night. I can’t remember the last time I did that.”

Oh yes, Lefty, on stage, off the tee, full of opinions and occasionally himself, playing the game of life along with the game of golf, a personality with personality and one of the great short games.

He’s back for another Ryder Cup, his 12th, knocking balls around Le Golf National, a course some 20 miles from Paris, rather than knocking anyone in charge of the U.S. squad, a veteran who knows what club to hit and knows what to say — even when, perhaps, he should remain silent.

“You would think I would get desensitized to it,” Mickelson said of his years as part of the American team, “but I have come to love and cherish these weeks even more, this week especially, with the amount of not just talented players but quality guys that are on our team.”

He is 48, a generation apart from teammates Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Bryson DeChambeau, nearly six years older than Tiger Woods, his longtime rival.

Along with Woods, Mickelson, or “Philly Mick” as they call him in New York, was a captain’s pick for this year’s team, chosen as much for reputation as performance — although in March he did get his first Tour victory in five years.

Phil was not playing in Friday morning’s four-balls, or better ball, as America tries to end a streak of five straight defeats in Europe, and Mickelson was asked if that happens, after his insistence on change following the loss four years ago in Scotland, would it be one of the crowning achievements in his career.

“I would not look at it that way,” said a magnanimous Mickelson, “because this is a team event and this is an event for all of us to cherish and be part of, and every person from the caddies, the spouses, the captains, vice captains and every player plays an integral part of the puzzle to do well and succeed.”

Of course, four years ago, when the U.S. was pummeled at Gleneagles, Scotland, it was one man, Mickelson, who found a reason and pressed to correct that. Mickelson said that Tom Watson, the captain that year — and for a second time, overall — was unable to communicate with his players and removed them from any part of the decision-making.

The PGA of America, which controls the Ryder Cup — not to be confused with the PGA Tour — took Mickelson’s advice, altered the method selecting wild-card players and the made other fixes. The plan worked, and in 2016 the U.S. won the Cup at Hazeltine, near Minneapolis.

In the 2004 Cup at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, Mickelson was paired with Woods, a dream team that turned into a nightmare. In foursomes, when players hit alternate shots with one ball, Phil might drive into the rough and a glowering Tiger would be forced to extricate the ball with the subsequent shot. They barely looked at each other.

But 14 years make a difference. Now Tiger and Phil, relative golden oldies compared to a Spieth or Brooks Koepka, have arranged to play each other in a multimillion-dollar match. And Phil said he willingly would join Tiger in this Ryder Cup, although U.S. captain Jim Furyk did not give his endorsement,

“I think when we (Woods and Mickelson) really started to work together to succeed,” said Phil, “going back in the Ryder Cup and the Presidents Cup, we have a lot more in common than we thought, and we came to appreciate working together to achieve things.”

If time doesn’t cure all ills, it does help change perspective. Woods and Mickelson have reached detente at a time in their careers when they can’t always reach the green of a par-5 in two shots.

“When we go over the little details as to why we were or were not successful,” said Mickelson, “it sometimes comes out like I’m taking a shot at somebody. I don’t want to do that anymore.”

Peace in our time.


Ryder Cup nastiness runneth over

By Art Spander

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — Tiger Woods was talking about applause in golf. Or really the lack of it. “The art of the clap is gone,” said Woods. Fans have one hand wrapped around a cell phone and their minds wrapped around the idea of creating chaos.

In his advice to spectators — patrons, they’re called — at the Masters, the late Bobby Jones said it would be impolite and improper to cheer a competitor’s mistakes. Which brings us to the Ryder Cup, a tournament where virtually anything goes and everything is yelled, especially insults.

The Cup’s nastiness runneth over. And ain’t it wonderful?

It you’re not familiar with the Ryder Cup, it’s a biennial event that matches golfers from the United States against golfers from Europe, many of whom live at least part-time in the United States. The 2018 Cup is Friday through Sunday at Le Golf National, a course about 20 miles from Paris.

Nobody in America seemed to notice the Cup, much less care about it, until back in the early 1990s when, whoops, Europe, with players such as Seve Ballesteros, Ian Woosnam and Nick Faldo began to kick America’s you-know-what.

As Davis Love III, a player and then a two-time American captain, recalled, “I got home, and a friend had two questions: What’s the Ryder Cup and how did we lose it?”

With considerable regret, that’s how. All those handshakes at the close of the tournament cover up a great deal of deep-felt irritation that once became public in comments by Paul Casey.

In the Sunday Times of London, Casey was quoted as saying he learned to “properly hate” Americans during the Cup and went on to explain that U.S. fans can be “bloody annoying” and the vast majority of American fans don’t know what’s going on.

The story made its way to the tabloid Daily Mirror, where a headline quoted Casey as saying, “Stupid Americans. I hate them.” That Casey, an Englishman, attended Arizona State, was married to an American and is based in Arizona didn’t seem to matter.

Casey, who plays the U.S. PGA Tour, is back on the European Ryder team, saying very little, unfortunately.

It’s football season in the U.S. (also in Europe, if a different brand of football). The Cup can use a few vocal barbs to get attention.

The Euros have grumbled about the manner American fans acted and bellowed during the 2016 matches at Minneapolis. Surely there will be a response this time around.

Tom Watson, the Stanford guy and five-time British Open champion, gets some of the blame. The 1991 Ryder Cup was held at Kiawah Island in South Carolina shortly after the U.S. military operation Desert Storm. To whip up interest, Watson, the U.S. team captain, called the matches “The War by the Shore,” and the fans roared at every missed Euro putt.

Six years later, 1997, the Cup was in Spain, and the Americans were harassed as much as possible. The next chapter was in 1999 at The Country Club in Boston, when Justin Leonard of the U.S. sank an enormously long birdie putt near the end of day three and his U.S. teammates and some of their wives and girlfriends celebrated on the green — even though opponent José Maria Olazabal had yet to putt.

That was 19 years ago, but a writer from Scotland brought it up the other day. These people have long memories and sometimes short fuses.

Sergio Garcia, the Spaniard, is a captain’s pick. Through the years he’s also been a pain in the neck for the U.S., holing long putts at the most opportune times — or inopportune for the Americans.

Someone suggested the U.S. has copied the camaraderie long evident among the Euros. “It may seem they are doing a little bit better,” said Garcia. “I don’t know what goes on in their team room, but I know what goes on in ours. It comes easy. It comes naturally.

“Then we will go out there and play the best we can and make sure we have a shot at winning the Cup.”

From the American team, we hear the sound of one hand clapping.


Tiger to his young challengers: ‘Alright, here we go’

By Art Spander

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — The hero who became the outcast again has become the hero, raising his sport as he raised his game, and turning back the clock as he turned away the skeptics.

Once more golf has been distilled to two words and one name, Tiger Woods, who was nearly lost in a crowd of enthralled fans as, for the first time in five years, he won a tournament, giving a new generation an idea of what he was like in the old days.

Now after a singular and — from the response in the TV ratings — wildly popular victory in the Tour Championship at Atlanta, Woods, along with some of the people he subdued, has crossed the ocean to play in the Ryder Cup, the biennial team competition between the U.S. and Europe.

That for the first time the Cup, Friday through Sunday, is being held in France, at Le Golf National, a course some 20 miles from Paris and maybe five miles from the glorious royal chateau of Versailles, seems appropriate.

One of golf’s more recent kings has been restored to his throne, and those involved in the game, even peripherally, are ecstatic. Why, during interviews on Tuesday, an American broadcaster, ignoring the dictum of no cheering in the press box, even figurative, thanked Woods “for all of us who earn our living in the golf business.”

Some journalists cringed. Tiger merely smiled in appreciation.

It all gets down to personalities in golf and tennis, to ladies such as Serena Williams, men such as Woods, whose simple presence — or absence — becomes a story.

Tiger, winning majors repeatedly, was an idol, if a distant one given the way he walked fairways without a wave or sideways glance. Then came the revelations about his womanizing, which alienated a percentage of his fans and the media. That was followed by surgery on his back, and who knew if he would play — or if he could play well?

The answer is in. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Jim Furyk’s decision in early August to add Woods to the 12-member squad was more than justified with Tiger’s victory, one achieved against players such as Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas, who were not on Tour when Woods was in his prime.

When asked why one of Woods’ friends, Phil Gordon, said that Tiger just wanted the new kids on the block to feel the heat of facing him down the stretch of a back nine, Tiger had a ready explanation.

“Well. a lot of these guys were — well, the younger guys were on their way in when I was on my way out,” said the 43-year-old Woods, who of course, still very much is in. He was alluding to Thomas, Koepka and Jordan Spieth, in particular.

“You know, they never had played against me when I was playing well. It’s been, what, five years since I won a tournament?”

Now it hasn’t even been five days.

“I think that when my game is there,” said Woods, trying to temper his self-belief, “I’ve always been a tough person to beat. They have jokingly been saying, ‘We want to go against you.’

“Alright, here we go. And we had a run at it. And it was a blast, because I had beat Rory (McIlroy) head-up in the final group. Rosy (Justin Rose) was tied with Rory ... Those guys had both ascended to No. 1 in the world. They both have won major championships, and I have not played a whole lot of golf the last few years.”

He played a lot the last few months, taking leads in the British Open and PGA Championship, and then winning the Tour Championship. That put him face-to-face with an unfortunate aspect of a career with few unfortunate aspects, his record in the Ryder Cup. Only once in his seven appearances has Woods been part of a winning team.

“Yeah,” agreed Woods, “looking back on my entire Ryder Cup career, that’s one thing I’ve not really enjoyed or liked seeing. I’ve sat out one session. That was the last (team play) session at Medinah (2012). Otherwise I’ve played every match. We haven’t done very well.”

Not at all, but this 2019 team is one with Koepka, Spieth, Thomas, Phil Mickelson and Woods — who, for better or worse, is the guy who the game is all about.


Gruden after the 0-2 start: ‘No regrets’

  ALAMEDA, Calif.—This is what Jon Gruden wanted. Well, not exactly. He didn’t want to lose the first two games on his return to coaching. He didn’t want to feel forced to trade away probably his best player, Khalil Mack. He wanted to be in charge of an NFL team once more, and so he is, with all the problems that brings.

  Even Monday, another day after, another day to get peppered with the questions he used to ask—or at least hint at—Gruden indicated there were no regrets.

  Coaches coach. Maybe John Madden secure in his well-earned reputation, not to mention the East Bay real estate holdings, was able to resist the call. But Dick Vermeil, Joe Gibbs and one of Gruden’s recent ESPN colleagues, Herman Edwards, stepped away from microphones and back into the line of fire.

   Gruden was not naïve. He knew the drill. He knew the misfortunes. He knew he was a star on Monday nights with a salary equal to his status. But deep down he was and is a football coach, and that can bring as much pain as satisfaction.

   A game the Oakland Raiders never trailed. Until the final 10 seconds. Until the only time that mattered. A game the Raiders lost on field goal, 20-19, because the Denver Broncos were able to move the ball from their own 20 to the Oakland 18 in a minute 48 seconds, allowing that 36-yard kick in the gut—uh, over the crossbar by Brandon McManus.

  A game that perfectly set up questions about the defensive line and the lack of Mack, who might have made a difference on that drive. Might. Gruden knew that was coming. He understands the game and the business.

   “I think we said after the game,” Gruden said to a packed media room at Raiders HQ, “we got to make improvements there. Across the board we got to make improvements.”

  But he doesn’t have to second-guess himself, at least in a public forum, with cameras and microphones and oh so many digital recorders and note pads.

  “No,” he answered about sending Mack away. “It doesn’t make me regret. We made the trade. We made the trade.”

  Not so nice had had to say it twice, but he did.

  “There has got to be hindsight. 50-50, all that stuff.”

  To be sure without Mack, the pass rusher, the All-Pro, there was no stuff, the type that stops an offense where he tried to start.

  “I would have loved to have had him,” said Gruden, quite forthright. “And I’m not going to keep rehashing this. I would have loved to have coached him, loved to have had him here. But he’s not here. Somebody’s got to step up.

  “We got to keep building our football team, and that’s what we’re going to do. Hopefully, we see more from Arden Key, we see more from P.J. Hall when he gets healthy. Hopefully we prove that in the long term we did the right thing.” 

  Players win games. Derek Carr, criticized obliquely the previous game, against the Rams, for not being decisive, nearly won this one, setting a team completion percentage record. Amari Cooper, 10 receptions for 116 yards, nearly won this one. Marshawn Lynch, 65 yards and a touchdown on 18 carries, nearly won this one.

  It’s hard to know whether Mack could have won this one, but the future draft picks the Raiders acquired didn’t do a thing. Indeed, that’s a gratuitous comment. The Raiders are what they are, which is an NFL team on the verge—of what no one can say, including the head coach.

  Gruden was asked what he saw from the first two games--two losing games, one of them well played, that made him think the Raiders still could be a contender—although truth tell he never even implied that, much less said it directly.

   “I’m not going to sit here and make predictions here today,” he said, sitting there. “I’m not going to do it. We’re going to keep building our football team. Whether that translates into one win or four wins or any wins . . . I’m not going to make any predictions about anything other than we’re going to play hard and provide the best effort we can.”

 As he departed, Gruden walked through the door and into one more question. Did he wish he hadn’t left ESPN for what surrounded him?

  “Not at all,” Gruden said. You sensed he very much meant it, and the heck with Khalil Mack.


For 49ers, a win is a win

  SANTA CLARA, Calif.—The result is what matters, the final score. It’s wonderful to perform flawlessly, to play to a level worthy of coaching texts and highlight videos. But however you do get there, at the end what matters in the NFL is who has the most points.

   On a warm Sunday in September, with the 75,000 seats at Levi’s Stadium maybe three-quarters full , at most, and with imperfection all too evident in the passing game—are six sacks enough evidence?—the San Francisco 49ers were able to beat the Detroit Lions, 30-27.

  Which means they now have a 1-1 record and unlike his rookie season as head coach, 2017, Kyle Shanahan will not continuously be asked when he’ll get his first win of the year. After two games, he has it and has a measure of satisfaction.

   “The win feels good,” said Shanahan. “It took me a while last year to get that win”

 Ten games to be exact. But this time only two games, which in Shanahan’s mind was one game too many.

 “I wish it was last week,” he said, “but I’m very happy. It was tough last year. I’m happy for our guys. I thought our defense played its butts off.  Our special teams made some huge plays, especially D.J. Read.

 “I thought we ran the heck out of the ball. There was a little struggle in the passing game, with the receivers, tight end and quarterback, but we found a way to win.”

  Or the 0-2 Lions, who botched up an interception that brought the ball to the Niners seven with 2:24 to play, with a penalty that nullified the pick, found a way to lose.

  Why the Niners, leading by three with the ball on their own 43, were throwing is beyond comprehension—or coaching.

  They got away with it, and maybe that once outdated slogan about the fans, the faithful, should be revised to “Faithful then, fortunate now.”

 Nothing goes perfect, said Shanahan, the offensive coordinator for Atlanta’s Super Bowl team before he took over the 49ers.”But we’ve got to do a better job with our passing. It’s not all on the blocking. We’ve got to get men open, and the quarterback shouldn’t hold the ball that long. We’ll look at it and correct it.”

  No correction is needed for Matt Breida, who along with Alfred Morris is sharing the position of starting running back, fill-ins for Jerrick McKinnon, who is on injured reserve. In the third quarter, gliding effortlessly following his blocking intelligently—including a juke near the goal line—Breida raced 66 yards for a touchdown.

   To echo the head coach, yes, they ran the heck out of the ball.

   “It was just a great job y the O-line,” said Breida. “They opened up a big hole on the play, and I found Pierre (wide receiver Pierre Garcon. He became my fullback down th4e field essentially . . . He’s a monster. He’s fearless, and he’s not afraid to block.”

  So running worked well. Passing worked less well.

 Jimmy Garoppolo held the ball too long at times. Often the quarterback takes six sacks, the team takes a loss, but as Shanahan said the running game was effective, 190 yards of the Niners 346 total. The Lions’ total was 427, including 329 passing on 34 of 53 by Matthew Stafford (Garoppolo was 18 of 26 for 206 yards and two touchdowns), but Detroit was stymied near the goal line.

  “Too many penalties,” said first-year Lions coach Matt Patricia. Detroit had 10 for105 yards, the Niners 9 for 66. “Too many mistakes. Too many plays there that obviously cost us the game. We had a game-changing play there that got called back”

The interception negated by defensive holding.

   “That was a good thing,” said Garoppolo.

Getting pummeled while waiting to throw was not

   “Got to get the ball out quicker,” said Garoppolo, “The offensive line played great today. We had a chance to blow them out. I think that comes with mental toughness. You can’t let human nature take over.”

  What he meant was the tendency to ease up.

  .Cornerback Richard Sherman emphasized that.

  “A win’s a win,” Sherman agreed, “but it feels like a loss because we played like crap.”