LOUISVILLE, Ky. | In the last two Ryder Cups, perhaps no U.S. player has been more culpable than Phil Mickelson for the nine-point thrashings administered by Europe.
Setting the tone for the 2004 loss, Mickelson showed up at Oakland Hills and proceeded to earn co-goat status with captain Hal Sutton. Flouting every tenet from the captain's code, Sutton mystified golf by pairing Tiger Woods with Mickelson. It seemed only Sutton was unaware of the personality conflict; he described the pair as "stronger than new rope."
Mickelson, of course, responded by mystifying Woods with his poor driving ability in Detroit, fanning his way to a 1-3 record.
Amazingly, Lefty bombed even worse two years ago at K Club in Ireland with an 0-4-1 record.
Mickelson entered both those events ranked No. 2 in the world, and he still maintains that status. And with Woods at home this week recovering from knee surgery, Mickelson is left as the United States' de facto marquee man.
In other words, the United States probably needs a complete reversal in recent Ryder Cup form from Mickelson to have a chance to upset Europe at Valhalla.
"I can't emphasize enough that if you dwell on the past, especially in this game, you're not going to be very successful," U.S. captain Paul Azinger said, brushing aside Mickelson's Ryder Cup blunders.
Azinger knows how important it is to wake up his roster's most talented player. That's why he has paired Mickelson with 23-year-old star Anthony Kim.
"They expressed an interest in playing together as soon as Anthony locked up his spot," said Azinger, who chose to put the Mickelson/Kim combination in the leadoff position for Friday morning's opening foursomes. "Mickelson called me personally and said he'd love to play with [Kim], but so did about six other guys. I said, 'Way to go out on a limb, Phil. You want Anthony Kim, really?' So I granted his wish for this first go-around."
Mickelson, Azinger and other U.S. players realize Kim isn't the standard Ryder Cup rookie. Kim posted a 2-1-1 record for the winning U.S. squad in the 2005 Walker Cup, and he might be the most talented first-timer the Ryder Cup has had since Spain's Sergio Garcia debuted for Europe in 1999.
After struggling somewhat with his focus and commitment last season as a 22-year-old rookie on the PGA Tour, Kim blossomed during his sophomore campaign. He won twice this season (Wachovia Championship and AT&T National) on two of the toughest layouts on the regular tour circuit (Quail Hollow and Congressional). Kim ranks third on the PGA Tour in scoring average (69.62) and fifth on the FedEx Cup points list thanks to a combination of power (tied for 11th on tour in driving distance - 300.5 yards) and putting (21st).
Perhaps most importantly to Mickelson, Kim's aggressive, streaky style of play mirrors his own mentality and approach.
"In four-balls it really doesn't matter because you play your own game and your partner plays his," Mickelson said. "But in alternate shot [foursomes], I like somebody similar."
Perhaps most importantly to Azinger, Kim brings passion and fire to the U.S. team.
"I'm going to bring a good attitude every day and my hard hat," Kim said. "I'm more excited about being here and playing in the Ryder Cup, being a part of this team, than all the success [I've had this season]. This is what I've worked toward. ... We're going to go out there and free-wheel it and make a lot of birdies and have some fun and definitely have some fun with the fans."
It's difficult to quantify exactly how important the Mickelson/Kim connection could be for the U.S. squad. Although the two represent the United States' strongest morning team according to world rankings, Azinger also hopes Kim's excitement proves infectious. If he can galvanize the galleries in the event's opening match and spur Lefty out of his scoring slump against the European duo of Padraig Harrington and Robert Karlsson, Kim likely will become the early candidate for American MVP.