- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 24, 2006

STRAFFAN, Ireland — It’s a shame Samuel Ryder didn’t commission a 14-inch set of goat horns back in 1927, because Phil Mickelson certainly has earned them.

The world’s second-ranked player arrived in Ireland as one of Tom Lehman’s three go-to guys, joining Tiger Woods and Jim Furyk as a player guaranteed to play five matches for the Americans. Lefty should have to swim home after a second day of shockingly poor play dropped him to 0-3-1 in the biennial event and guaranteed him U.S. mutt-of-the-match ignominy.

It wasn’t easy to claim the mantle of culpability for a disappointing U.S. squad trailing Europe 10-6 heading into today’s closing singles.

There certainly have been other ragged strands in the Stars and Stripes in Ireland.

Continuing the long-standing tradition of incompetence among American captains, Lehman definitely contributed to the calamity. He twice benched J.J. Henry in the afternoon after the rookie came up with the goods in the morning four-balls. The tight timing of the pairings submissions might absolve Lehman for one Henry shelving. But he shouldn’t have made the same mistake twice, certainly not given the paucity of other U.S. heroes.

Lehman is also the guy responsible for Scott Verplank’s attendance. Given the rumor that it sometimes rains in Ireland, making a 7,335-yard track even longer, Lehman probably shouldn’t have chosen a guy who can’t hit it 250 yards on tarmac. Verplank apparently was miffed that he was put on the pine yesterday afternoon after his morning four-ball victory with Zach Johnson. Someone ought to unsaddle him from Johnson’s back and inform the 42-year-old Verplank that he didn’t card a single birdie yesterday.

And Woods and Furyk have unquestionably been less than dominant, posting a 2-2 record as Lehman’s only four-time pairing. The United States clearly expected more from the 12-time major champion and the grinding veteran with the spaghetti swing. But if every pairing had played as “poorly” as Woods and Furyk, the 36th Ryder Cup would stand all-square heading into the singles.

And, sure, Chris DiMarco didn’t do his part alongside Mickelson. The Claw almost always hits it short and crooked, but this week he also forgot how to putt, contributing to the doomed marriage that produced an optimistic 3-0-1 record at last year’s Presidents Cup. But for all his fist-pumping histrionics, there’s a reason DiMarco has just three tour titles to his credit. Mickelson’s 29 victories, three majors, superior ranking and birdie-binging style demand a higher bar and broader shoulders.

But the game Lefty brought to K Club simply leaves him an ever-broadening bull’s-eye. In 34 holes of better ball with DiMarco, Mickelson made just two birdies … on a soft course … featuring four par-5s … with ball in hand. Now, the average weekend chop wouldn’t be pleased with such results. For a man who ranks second on the PGA Tour in birdie average (4.38 birdies a round), such futility is beyond shocking.

If you don’t think birdies were out there to be made, consider that Johnson made seven during his match with Verplank yesterday. And the Europeans have spent two days bathing the layout in red numbers.

Now, everybody is entitled to a bad round or two. But Mickelson is 1-7-1 in his last nine Ryder Cup matches. For a player of his caliber, that’s not a couple of bad afternoons. It’s a trend that leads to questions about his commitment to and preparation for an event that stands right behind the Olympics and the World Cup in the pantheon of sports broadcasting behemoths.

The man with the pasted-on smile chose not to speak with the media after yesterday’s two losses. Even a spinmeister of his considerable talents has trouble wagging such a dog performance. But he did send DiMarco to do his bidding.

“[Lehman] put us out for three matches, gave us all the opportunity in the world to get some points, and we didn’t,” said DiMarco, who was benched in the afternoon while Lefty lost again, this time with David Toms. “We made a total of five birdies in best-ball. That’s unacceptable. We had 35 birdie putts between us both that we didn’t make. So, we just didn’t make any putts.”

DiMarco deserves some credit for standing up after their struggles, but putting was far from Mickelson’s only problem. Over the last two days Lefty missed fairways, missed greens and hit a handful of the loosest bunker shots he has ever hit. Perhaps that’s because Mickelson, who prepared obsessively before each of this season’s majors, took a month off before the Ryder Cup.

He showed up rusty, played like a rube and personifies the U.S. team’s failures in an event Europe is likely to win for the fifth time in six tries this afternoon.

Perhaps U.S. fans should look at the bright side. At least Mickelson brought his own clubs this time.

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