Column: Mickelson needing the greatest escape of his career
LOS ANGELES (AP) — The commercial slogan associated with Phil Mickelson for years is never more true than it is now, minus the anticipation of something extraordinary.
What will Phil do next?
Whether his true intentions were chasing Saudi Arabian money or gaining more control over how he thinks the PGA Tour should be run, Mickelson has been exposed for manipulating people to get what he wants.
Once seen as leading the charge of players poised to join a breakaway Saudi golf league, Lefty is now on his own among those with real influence.
Dustin Johnson declared his support for the PGA Tour on Sunday, and Bryson DeChambeau quickly tagged along by default. None of the top 12 players in the world — and that doesn’t include Brooks Koepka and Jordan Spieth — have indicated any interest.
What’s the point of joining a league that doesn’t have A-list players?
“I’m sure he’s sitting at home sort of rethinking his position and where he goes from here,” Rory McIlroy said.
Mickelson’s first step in that direction was a lengthy apology on Tuesday in which he claimed his explosive comments about the Saudis and his motivation for joining them were taken out of context and meant to be off the record. He added that the “pressure and stress” of professional golf have taken a toll on his mental health.
“I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words,” Mickelson said.
But this time, it’s not as easy as a simple apology.
That worked when he complained in 2013 about paying too many taxes in California. And when he was involved in an illicit stock trade that led to him giving back to the government the $931,000 (plus interest) he made in one week.
Mickelson was a relief defendant and never charged, but most telling was what he pledged when it was over: “I have to be responsible for the people I associate with.”
This time, he left plenty of wreckage behind him.
Greg Norman and his LIV Golf Investments, which is trying to create a rival league by offering unrivaled riches, have every reason to be furious. Mickelson made it clear in his explosive interview with author and golf writer Alan Shipnuck at The Fire Pit Collective that his threat to join a “Super Golf League” is about getting leverage to change the PGA Tour.
“I’m not even sure I want it to succeed,” Mickelson said of the Saudi-financed league. “But just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the tour.”
And here Norman thought he was using Mickelson to exact his own vendetta against the tour.
As for the Saudis? Imagine the reaction of those who control the purse strings of this proposed league, the Public Investment Fund, chaired by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. In the interview, Mickelson referred to them as “scary mother (expletive)s to get involved with.”
Not to be overlooked are the fans he has cultivated over 30 years with thumbs-up gestures, hours of signing legible autographs, six major championships and countless thrills and spills.
This is how he explained his pursuit of the Saudi league in the interview with Shipnuck:
“We know they killed (Washington Post columnist Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” he said. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
How to recover from that?
Would a corporate sponsor want to be associated with that line of thinking? Mickelson issued his apology at the same time KPMG announced it was ending its 14-year partnership with him, a decision the company called mutual.
This is not as excusable as someone making a mockery of the rules by stopping a moving ball on the green as he did at Shinnecock Hills in the 2018 U.S. Open. This is not someone who thinks California is taking too much of his money.
Mickelson has not played since the Saudi International, where he blasted the PGA Tour for “obnoxious greed” while collecting a seven-figure appearance fee. He is not playing this week and no one is sure where he will show up next, much less what he will do or what he will say.
The PGA Tour does not disclose disciplinary action. Still, there is chatter about whether Mickelson would face suspension for his damaging remarks (where to start?) and for saying in the interview that he and three other unnamed players paid attorneys to write the operating agreement for a rival golf league. He said the players would have control. Of course.
Still to be determined is whether Mickelson has lost the locker room or lost his marbles.
He hasn’t announced he is leaving. There is no evidence he has signed up with the Saudis.
DeChambeau was said to be leaning that way, with a reported $130 million offer and plenty of tales of his ill will toward the tour. But he said — after Johnson put his cards on the table — that as long as the best players are on the PGA Tour, that’s where DeChambeau plans to be.
Anyone who joined the new league risked being banned from the PGA Tour, and by extension, was unlikely to take part in another Ryder Cup. Mickelson has always been looked upon as the natural choice for captain at Bethpage Black in 2025.
New York has always loved Lefty. Does it still? The bigger question is whether he can regain the respect of the players.
Justin Thomas referred to Mickelson’s comments as “egotistical.” McIlroy was particularly strong even while trying not “to kick someone while’s he’s down.” That was unavoidable.
“Naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant. A lot of words to describe that interaction with Shipnuck,” McIlroy said. “It was just very surprising and disappointing.”
And he offered one other word: sad.
The last amateur to win on the PGA Tour. The leap when he finally won his first major. The unthinkable when he won his sixth major at age 50, a moment that defined his sublime talent, his longevity and his enthusiasm for the game.
Mickelson had it all — the adoration, the wealth.
With his most daring and audacious play for control, Mickelson might only be able to salvage the latter at a great cost.