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  • Jim Furyk's decision to play Phil Mickelson alongside Bryson DeChambeau in foursomes was a mistake. But try and understand his thought process before judging too harshly.
By Michael Rosenberg
September 28, 2018

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France — The big rumor here Friday morning was that Phil Mickelson would not play at all. Mickelson has had a lousy end to the year. Lately, his tee shots seem to land everywhere but the fairway. And as the morning matches began and Mickelson rode near the first tee in a golf cart with wife Amy in his lap, the best chance to play him had already vanished.

If U.S. captain Jim Furyk was going to play Phil, the thinking went, he had to play him in the morning fourball matches. Everybody plays their own ball, he can fire for birdies, and a lousy drive doesn’t hurt you as much. Your partner can make par, after all. But in afternoon foursomes, you force some poor teammate to have to hit recovery shots after your misses—something exacerbated by Le Golf National’s tight layout.

Well, Phil played in foursomes. It went so poorly that if Mickelson had tried to slap a moving putt, like he did at the U.S. Open, he probably would have whiffed.

And the U.S. got swept in the afternoon matches, 4-0. No match was even close.

And the first reason Furyk gave for playing Mickelson in foursomes? “Well, he’s got a lot of experience.”

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And so Mickelson became the face of the afternoon debacle, and Furyk got painted as the dumbest man on the planet. These stories have a habit of getting away from us. We boil them down to a very simple narrative and scream our heads off.

So let’s make two points upfront. One is that Furyk made a mistake. Mickelson is simply not one of the eight best foursomes players on the U.S. team right now, by any measure. He should not have played Friday afternoon. We will get into the possible mechanics behind that mistake in a moment.

And second: This mistake had almost nothing to do with Europe’s afternoon sweep. You cannot blame Mickelson for Henrik Stenson and Justin Rose beating Dustin Johnson and Rickie Fowler, 3 and 2. You cannot blame him for Francesco Molinari and Tommy Fleetwood beating Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth, 5 and 4. You cannot blame him for Rory McIlroy and Ian Poulter beating Webb Simpson and Bubba Watson, 4 and 2.

You can try to blame Furyk for putting Watson out there, since Bubba has been battling a bad cold all week, but come on. Watson and Simpson were a great pairing in the past, and Watson is battling a cold, not Ebola. They had a bad afternoon. The Americans all did. It happens.

And honestly: I’m not sure how much you can blame Mickelson for Mickelson's loss. Sure, he was lousy. His partner, Ryder Cup rookie and 25-year-old Bryson DeChambeau, was not much better. But Sergio Garcia and Alex Noren were five under on the front nine. On this golf course. In 20 mph winds. That is insane. They would have been five up on Thomas/Spieth and six up on Johnson/Fowler. Mickelson and DeChambeau could have played pretty well and they still would have lost.

But yeah, it was still a mistake. So why did Furyk make it? Well, Furyk has an explanation. He said Friday that “I realize the golf course is tight, I realize you have to hit a lot of fairways. You’re not hitting a lot of drivers.” He was comfortable with Mickelson in foursomes because Mickelson is a good iron player. One problem with this theory is that Furky did not carry it to completion. Mickelson teed off on the odd holes (perhaps to save DeChambeau from first-tee jitters), which meant Mickelson would have to hit tee shots on two of the three par-fives and only tee off on one of the four par-3s. If you are playing him because he doesn’t have to hit driver, then why was he hitting driver?

Also, I suspect that’s not the full reason.

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I think Furyk was ready to sit Mickelson for the whole day. So he didn’t think, “Hey, I’d rather have Phil in the foursomes than fourball.” He thought, “I’ll sit him in fourball, and maybe we’ll play well and I won’t have to play him at all.”

Of course Furyk can’t say that. But Furyk said Thursday—and again Friday—that he decides his afternoon pairings at least partly based on how guys play in the morning.

I don’t think Furyk liked what he saw Friday morning. Yes, that sounds silly, since the U.S. won three of the four morning matches. What’s not to like? But see, it only ended 3-1.

One thing you have to understand about the Ryder Cup is that it’s like four major sporting events going on at the same time, and one guy is coaching in all four. It is a lot to manage. Furyk had his vice captains everywhere—Zach Johnson spent so much time with Spieth and Thomas, they can file a joint tax return—but still, it’s hard to manage.

Halfway through the morning sessions, Europe led two matches and was all-square in another. Ryder Cup rookie Tony Finau looked and played like he was nervous to start the day. Brooks Koepka couldn’t make a putt. Patrick Reed appeared to have left all his Ryder Cup magic back in the United States, probably at a Waffle House. Tiger Woods was just OK.

So what did Furyk do? He benched Finau and Koepka, the duo that had looked shaky early. Never mind that they ended up winning—by then, Furyk’s afternoon pairings had been announced.

Furyk had talked Thursday about his last two morning twosomes, Spieth-Thomas and Woods-Reed, as a four-person pod: “There's all kinds of options within those four players. When we're grouping up pairings … I'm not trying to get six twosomes out there and limit yourself with what you have. I'm looking for options. You know, putting those four players together gave us options.” When he decided to keep Thomas and Spieth together, he had a choice: keep Woods and Reed, or drop them and go for Mickelson-DeChambeau.

A third option—sit Reed, and pair Woods with DeChambeau—was apparently off the table. After all, DeChambeau was not in that four-person pod.

Furyk opted to bench Woods and Reed. And since he was benching two groups, he had to put all four guys who sat in the morning out in the afternoon.

It was a bad decision, but it looks worse now because the wind kicked up, the Americans all collapsed, and Europe swept the foursomes in historic fashion. Furyk seems unfazed, understandably: A 5-3 lead in a 28-point event can easily be overcome.

Furyk chose the same pairings for his Saturday morning fourball sessions that he used Friday morning. If he sticks with Phil again in the afternoon, then you can say he is insane. (You know, unless it works.)

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)