Tiger, Phil and the possible winless end of a Ryder Cup era

PARIS -- When the Ryder Cup comes to Whistling Straits in 2020, Phil Mickelson will be 50 years old. Tiger Woods will be 44. It's quite possible they will once again be players on the American Ryder Cup team. Maybe they'll qualify on points, or maybe their good friend Steve Stricker, the man likely to be the U.S. captain with the event headed to his home state of Wisconsin, will add them for veteran leadership. Maybe the two men who have been the twin pillars of American golf for 20 years will get one more shot at redemption in this event.

But because nothing is guaranteed in life or in golf, this week in Paris also might be the end for both men. And if it is, maybe that's for the best. They can put down the clubs, pick up a pairings sheet, or throw in an earpiece. Tiger can hand out fist bumps, Phil can offer up his belly to Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas to rub for good luck. Both men can pass the burden on to the next generation of Americans. They had their chance.

What happened to the Americans this week in Paris -- with the U.S. squad suffering one of its most demoralizing defeats ever in a 17½-10½ loss -- wasn't entirely Woods' and Mickelson's fault. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player in the world, went 1-3. He was almost as bad. But Woods and Mickelson, a combined 0-6, get to own the majority of it, in part because everyone knows they weren't just players -- they had a hand in the planning, too. Mickelson wanted the veteran players to have more input, and he stepped on Tom Watson's neck to get it. It helped them in Hazeltine, and they got plenty of credit. But when it goes bad, as it did this week, you have to own that, too.

Woods went 0-4 and looked sullen, distant and weary throughout the week. It should go down as the worst Ryder Cup performance of his career. He's just the fourth player to go winless in four matches since 1979. Mickelson went 0-2 and, in a fitting yet depressing moment, dumped his tee shot in the pond on the 16th hole, then shook hands with Francesco Molinari to concede their match, the clinching point and the Ryder Cup for the Europeans.

Tiger's fans will point to Phil and say he never should have been on the team. Phil's fans will point to Tiger and say he has never once shown he truly cares about this event, and that he makes everyone he plays with worse, even if through no fault of his own.

It's time to stop making excuses for either of them.

It's unfair to suggest they don't care. That's nonsense, and an insult to anyone who knows them, even a little bit. Both of them care a great deal, even if they show it in very different ways.

"It's difficult to talk about it," Mickelson said Sunday night after the loss when asked what the Ryder Cup means to him. "It's meant so much to me over the years. I did not play well this year. And this, realistically, could be my last one. I'm motivated now to not go out on this note."

But for whatever reason, they can't seem to translate that emotion into success. Mickelson seemed like he was turning the corner at Medinah in 2012, when he was chest-bumping and butt-slapping with Keegan Bradley on his way to winning three consecutive team matches. And it appeared Woods had found the perfect role at Hazeltine, prowling the grounds wearing an earpiece, keeping Patrick Reed calm as he lifted the United States to its first Ryder Cup win since 2008.

Yet these are the cold, hard facts. Phil now has 22 losses in this event, the most of any player in history on either side. Tiger has 21, the second most. That's not a fluke, not a small sample size (they've played 83 matches between them). This is who they are.

In a sense, it is fitting they each passed their captain Jim Furyk, the previous loss leader (20). That triumvirate of Americans have always been flummoxed by this event. It's a sad song that has been stuck on repeat, particularly in Europe, for half their lives.

Furyk maybe could have saved them from themselves, if he'd been bolder with his choices. He could have taken Phil aside, prior to his captain's picks, and offered a blunt but fair assessment of his game: You aren't playing well. You haven't played well all summer. This course isn't a good fit for your game. You're more valuable to me as an assistant captain, playing the role of everyone's favorite uncle, so come to France with us, but don't bring your clubs. I need Keegan Bradley, Xander Schauffele or Kevin Kisner instead.

Mickelson, though, has always believed he's close to turning things around. It has been his greatest strength and also his greatest weakness throughout his career.

"I spent more time hitting balls this week than I have at any point in my career, just trying to find something," Mickelson said. "But ever since I shot 63 right before I was picked, it's been a struggle."

As for Woods, of course, Furyk was always going to pick him after his sizzling summer, a run that ended with an emotional win in the Tour Championship. But when Woods got to France, it was apparent on the first day that something was off, that he was running on fumes and looking stiff, if not quite injured.

"For me, it's been a lot of golf for a short period of time," Woods admitted during Sunday's media conference after finishing his first Ryder Cup appearance in which he did not register a single point.

He looked like he could barely keep his eyes open.

It would have taken considerable courage to sit him twice, and use him only in foursomes to keep him fresh. That's how Thomas Bjorn wisely used Henrik Stenson, who is the same age as Woods. Stenson responded by going 3-0.

Would Furyk have been second-guessed if he used Woods sparingly and didn't pick Mickelson? If the Americans had lost, of course he would have. But every losing Ryder Cup captain gets second-guessed anyway, which is why the job is such a thankless pressure cooker.

"We're going to get second-guessed," Furyk said. "I realize as leader and captain, I'm going to bear the brunt of it. It's going to be on my plate. I take that role."

One of the reasons the PGA of America chose Watson as the captain for Gleneagles in 2014 is former PGA of America president Ted Bishop wanted someone who would stand up to the players and remind them it is the coach, not the players, who gets to dictate the pairings. Watson bungled a number of decisions, and may have deserved the mutiny that erupted. We may now, though, be experiencing an overcorrection.

"Our captain is one of the best people in golf," Mickelson said. "We had phenomenal leadership. He brought everyone in on every decision. Some of you might question the decisions, but everything was done with thought and reason and input."

As Woods, Mickelson and the rest of the U.S. squad climbed aboard golf carts to head toward the airport, Rickie Fowler lingered behind a bit, answering a few questions. Was he sad at all thinking this might be the last Ryder Cup for Mickelson and Woods?

"As my friends, I feel for them," Fowler said. "I wouldn't put it past Tiger or Phil to be back in two years or four years. We'll see."

Was it difficult to watch the match end with Mickelson dumping one in the water?

"I don't know," Fowler said. "It ends where it ends."

He was talking about the end of the 2018 Ryder Cup, but he just as easily could have been talking about the end of an era.