Ryder Cup: Mickelson's wind-up is par for the course

By Tom EnglishBBC Scotland at Gleneagles
Phil Mickelson with US Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson
Phil Mickelson will be playing in a record 10th Ryder Cup at Gleneagles

In the tummy-tickling, love-bombing world that is Ryder Cup golf, Phil Mickelson's words were bound to provoke a storm - even a pretend storm, the kind of manufactured controversy that this game specialises in.

Call it what you will - a "zinger", a "swipe", an exercise in "trash-talking", a good old "verbal shoeing" or plain old mind games - but when the American poked fun at Rory McIlroy's strained relationship with his old pal Graeme McDowell he knew precisely what he was doing.

He was calling a brief halt to the mutual appreciation society, the succession of soft-soaps in the interview room where each man - blue or red - gave the impression that he'd sooner gouge out his own eyes than say anything even mildly controversial about the opposition.

He was also shining a light on the elephant in the European team room - and boy how he enjoyed it.

The Europeans talk endlessly - and with some justification - about their close bond, hinting all the while that the reason the Americans have failed to win seven of the last nine Ryder Cups is because their team-ethic, as well as their ability to perform under pressure, is not as strong.

The Europeans can be particularly smug about that and it doesn't play well with some members of the opposition, particularly Mickelson, who has played in every one of those American losses in recent times and has taken some real stick for his Ryder Cup record.

On Wednesday, he delivered some gently mocking humour to a room predominantly made up of European journalists who were, largely, asking about the failings of the American team.

In the moment, Mickelson decided to have some fun about a mate of his, McIlroy.

"Not only are we able to play together," said Mickelson in support of his team, "we also don't litigate against each other and that's a real plus."

And, lo, Litigate was born.

Mickelson was referring to the uncomfortable relationship between two of Europe's most stellar players. Both from Northern Ireland, both major winners and both - once upon a time - united under the same management company.

McIlroy divorced himself from Dublin-based Horizon a while back - and it's been messy. He has taken legal proceedings and as part of the case he has sought disclosure on financial issues relating to McDowell's contracts.

McDowell has said little about the controversy apart from making it known that he did not appreciate being drawn into it. He said his relationship with McIlroy became strained, but he updated that this week, saying that they are now closer than ever. Not everybody was buying that one...

Golf does not exist in some kind of parallel universe to most other sports. This is not a sporting nirvana where ferocious ribbing is outlawed. It happens in golf. It happens a lot.

It's just that we don't tend to hear the slaggings because half of them are X-rated.

Phil Mickelson with team-mate Rickie Fowler (right)
Team-mate Rickie Fowler (right) laughed off Mickelson's remarks

Mickelson's comment might have come during a press conference that had a little too much questioning of the American team's bottle and spirit for his liking, but it was also an extension of his personality.

He's mischievous. He's a first-class kidder. "Phil's always Phil," said Rickie Fowler when asked about Litigate. "That's why we love him."

In other words, no big deal.

And Fowler is right. This was a bit of fun from Mickelson, not some caustic attack. It was devilment, nothing more.

Golf masquerades as the gentleman's game, as US captain Tom Watson called it on Tuesday, but some of the interaction between players is like friendly fire. They don't spare each other. In this particular verbal 'war', Mickelson is a general. He knows how to wind people up and he knows that in McIlroy he's got somebody who will be happy to play along.

When they meet, you can be certain that McIlroy will have a retort prepared. A good one. Close to the bone. Unsparing. The kind of thing that a mate says to a mate.

They are friends. This is what friends do. The pair of them might be bemused at the coverage this 'spat' is already receiving on Twitter, and will receive again in some newspapers on Thursday.

Mickelson has been accused of a nasty cheap shot, an unnecessary jibe, a trolling of the world number one, an uncalled-for dig that is unbecoming of him. That's a pretty po-faced way of looking at it. He introduced an element of needle, but he did it with a half-smile.

The reaction in the European team room would surely have been laughter rather than anger. Players dish it out and they take what's coming.

None of us should swoon as this is happening. This is what always happens. It's just on Wednesday we got to see it for ourselves rather than watching the pair of them walking down the fairway in fits of laughter and wondering what the joke is.

2014 Ryder Cup on the BBC
Venue: Gleneagles, Scotland Dates: 26-28 September Start times: 07:35 and 13:15 BST on Friday and Saturday and 11:36 BST on Sunday.
Coverage: Live radio and text commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, online, tablets, mobiles and BBC Sport app. Highlights on BBC Two.