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Mickelson's year takes a sharp downturn

Phil Mickelson has a green jacket in his closet to remind him this has been a great year. It just might not seem that way right now. In the ultimate case of "what have you done for me lately," Mickelson has gone from Masters champion to Ryder Cup renegade.

He certainly wasn't the goat at Oakland Hills; for once, that was a team effort. But most of the criticism probably will fall into his lap for a series of dubious decisions that were magnified by poor play.

First, he changed equipment companies a week before the Ryder Cup. Then he didn't play on the tournament course the final two days before the matches.

All that would have been overlooked except for his performance. The Rancho Santa Fe resident got benched Saturday morning. He lost his singles match with what NBC analyst Johnny Miller called a "nut shot." And his 1-3 mark at Oakland Hills was the first time in five Ryder Cups that Lefty had a losing record.

Asked to explain what went wrong for the Americans, one can only hope Mickelson wasn't serious when he said that playing in the Ryder Cup was a "career-defining moment for us."

If that's the case, Mickelson's defining moment would be that knockdown 9-iron he tried to bounce onto the 16th green along the water at Oakland Hills, not the 18-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Augusta National. He would be remembered as the guy who skipped two days of team practice, not the one who so brilliantly mapped out a strategy at the majors that he came within five shots of winning all four.

The next thing Mickelson said Sunday night was more accurate.

"When we get here, we are under constant ridicule and scrutiny over our play, and not coming together as a team, and all of this stuff that we know to be false," he said.

Mickelson was begging for scrutiny. Given the events leading up to the Ryder Cup, it's a wonder he didn't replace the small American flag on the back of his team uniform with a bull's-eye.

He is not the first player to change equipment before the Ryder Cup. Tiger Woods caused a stir when he switched to Nike irons a week before the '02 Ryder Cup at The Belfry. But then he won the World Golf Championship that week in Ireland by not making a bogey until the 72nd hole.

Mickelson switched to the Callaway driver, fairway metals and golf ball at the Canadian Open and tied for 57th with his highest-score of the year (291) and fewest number of birdies (11).

Not surprisingly, Mickelson was pounded with questions about his new tools during the Ryder Cup. It was easy to blame his play on the equipment change, even though he was coming off back-to-back bad weeks on tour.

Besides, it's not as if that was the first time he has missed a fairway by 40 yards.

And he was using Woods' golf ball when Mickelson came up short on the 11th green and spun back down the hill into the fairway, a pivotal point in their alternate-shot match Friday afternoon.

The equipment issue became such a flash point that David Toms rose to his defense after the only point Mickelson contributed all week.

"Hold on, hold on," Toms said, the closest he has ever come to giving a lecture. "He was my partner today. All I can tell you is I think he hit every fairway with that new equipment. He was not hitting irons off the tee. He was hitting Callaway drivers, 4-woods, 3-woods. And he played damn good."

Mickelson repeated he made the right decision.

"Nobody else believes it, but I can live with that," he said. "If I went the other way and played with something that everybody else thought was right but I didn't ---- that I can't live with."

As for his practice habits, that fell in line with captain Hal Sutton's philosophy. He wanted his guys to worry about their own game and let that spill over into the results everyone expects.

Mickelson stuck to his routine. He spent nearly eight hours playing 18 holes Monday when Oakland Hills was closed to the public, hitting shots from every imaginable spot around the green, filling his yardage book with notes.

He rarely plays the course in the days leading up to a major ---- remember his visit to the Buffalo Bills' training camp at the PGA Championship last year? But no one could think of a time when a player didn't practice with his team. And for Mickelson to practice on the adjacent North course at Oakland Hills on Thursday only put him under greater scrutiny.

If he delivered, it probably would be a moot point.

But he didn't, and that left Mickelson open to more second-guessing than Sutton.

Then again, that's been the story of Mickelson's career.

What most people see as a bad decision, Mickelson sees as poor execution.

Given the intensity of the Ryder Cup, this might have been a little of both.

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