Can Phil Mickelson Make One Last Great Escape?
“I still am in shock that I did that, I just can’t believe I did that. I’m looking for an idiot.” —Phil Mickelson, after double-bogeying the 72nd hole of the 2006 US Open to lose by stroke one
Oh, Phil. Over 30 years since he first broke onto the scene, the refrain remains the same. The second-greatest golfer of the Tiger Woods era and one of the dozen best of all time has seemingly been in trouble ever since he set his suitcase down. Flamboyant and gracious, ingenious and oddball, cutthroat and insecure, the six-time major winner’s game is a preposterously entertaining comingling of Errol Flynn and Peter Sellers: one part swashbuckling brilliance, one part inimitable slapstick. He’s been compared to many players from the past: Arnie, for his legion of fans, his derring-do and general magnanimity; Seve, for his scrambling genius and penchant for making the course as hard as possible out of simple boredom.
But ultimately, Phil is a true original. We won’t see the likes of him again. And now, after it was announced he won’t defend his historic, career-defining PGA Championship victory from last year, the question is: Does he have one last great escape left in him?
The story of how Phil Mickelson turned what should have been a calendar-year-long celebration of his manifold achievements into a scandal-driven retreat from the public has a long version and a short version. The long version involves internal PGA contretemps, the impenetrable economics of golf and its sponsors, thorny new questions about media rights in the digital age, and even a side of geopolitics. The short version is that Mickelson’s innate tendency to color outside the lines has seemingly, finally, left him with an unplayable lie in the court of public opinion. For those who haven’t been keeping up, the broad strokes are as follows:
Back in February, Lefty’s long-simmering feud with the PGA Tour boiled over when veteran golf scribe Alan Shipnuck revealed pieces of an interview he had conducted with Mickelson in November. Shipnuck, who was putting the finishing touches on his book Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar, was surprised that Mickelson reached out to begin with—he had refused three previous interview requests for the project—and was more started still by his unvarnished remarks. The two covered a number of topics, but much of what Shipnuck released late last year had to do with Mickelson’s intention to cultivate the Saudi Golf League, a proposed alternative to the PGA Tour that would be sponsored by the Saudi Arabian government and offer players astronomical $20 million purses.
The SGL—and Greg Norman’s parallel track, the likewise Saudi-underwritten LIV tour—are immensely controversial for a dizzying array of reasons, but by far the biggest is the moral implication of conducting business with a nation-state whose record of human rights abuses is shutter-inducing. Most golfers in Mickelson’s position wouldn’t touch this topic with a 50-inch shaft. But in unburdening himself to Shipnuck, Phil drove straight into trouble:
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” he reflected. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a terrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. 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. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Trip.”
It’s impossible to say precisely what Mickelson’s thought process was in delivering that quote, but it became a true marvel of public discourse, one that managed to alienate and infuriate just about every conceivable stakeholder in eight airtight, self-immolating sentences. To the PGA Tour, where he is second only to Tiger with over $95 million in career prize money and gained the exposure to make hundreds of millions more in endorsements, the message was full-blown insurrection without compromise. To gay people and journalists, it seemed that their lives were an acceptable cost for some fairly abstract notions about reforming professional golf. And, for good measure, he called his would-be (strong-armed, coercive) benefactors in Saudi Arabia, you know, motherfuckers. The PR equivalent of a Gordian knot. Oh Phil
The ramifications quickly snowballed. Fellow superstar Rory McIlroy annihilated Mickelson, calling his remarks “naïve, selfish, egotistical, and ignorant.” Other players on tour were also known to be variously outraged by the moral nullity, or even simply annoyed by the distraction. Justin Thomas too called Mickelson’s remarks “egotistical” and expressed exasperation at the seemingly interminable gestation period of the splinter tour controversy. “I’ve heard way too much talk about a lot of players who are ‘so done with everything,'” Thomas lamented about the complaints of Mickelson and other players threatening to jump ship from the PGA Tour. “They keep hanging around, so clearly they’re not done.” Investment firm KPMG, Amstel Light, and Workday canceled their sponsorships of Mickelson, and his longtime equipment supplier, Callaway, placed their partnership on “pause.”
In the wake of the broadening scandal, Phil made a weird apology on social media, which seemed to underscore his desperation to be seen as a change agent in golf while also hinting at a level of anxiety and introspection that superseded his remarkable verbal gaffe: ” I have often failed myself and others too,” hey wrote. “The past 10 years I have felt the pressure and stress slowly affecting me at a deeper level. I know I have not been my best and desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.”
And with that, one of the sports world’s greatest attention-seekers was gone. Mickelson skipped the Masters in April, where he is a three-time champion and consistent threat to win. His rapacious employ of social media ceased completely, save for the occasional phantom sighting:
Rumors of Phil Mickelson’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. He had plenty of speed yesterday at Rancho Santa Fe Golf Club. pic.twitter.com/N3NhqwEA6v
— Fire Pit Collective (@firepitstories) April 28, 2022
Other than perhaps the telling gesture of applying for an exemption to play a Saudi-backed LIV tour event in June, all was quiet on the Lefty front. But even considering his recent reticence, it’s difficult to overstate how startling Phil’s decision not to post at Southern Hills is. For a defending major champion to skip out on the opportunity to back up his victory is practically unheard of, except in instances of serious injury. What Mickelson is trying to tell us, or what his choice to not play tells us about him, is as fraught an open question as the sport has faced in recent memory.
“It’s a stunner,” Shipnuck told me over the phone this week. The man whose reporting set the entire imbroglio into motion, and who literally just wrote the book on Mickelson, interprets the decision as a genuine indicator of just how much turmoil Phil is likely experiencing. “I think there is just so much unsettled in his private life and his professional life. The ground just continues to shift beneath his feet.”
With Mickelson, the elephant in the room is gambling. Lefty is the latest in a line of professional golfers that enjoy a money game that can quickly escalate to stratospheric stakes. He is also a fixture at sports books—he once hit on a 28-1 preseason bet on the Baltimore Ravens to win the 2001 Super Bowl, to the tune of $560,000. Of course, not all of his wagers have gone so well. In his new tome, Shipnuck reports that Mickelson lost a staggering $40 million between 2010 and 2014.
Phil has made ridiculous sums of money during his career, but Croesus himself would have difficulty sustaining that level of hemorrhaging. Some of Mickelson’s grievances with the PGA Tour are credible—but it’s impossible not to wonder whether the decision to play footsie with the Saudis is not in part an attempt to alleviate some financial strain. It wouldn’t be the first time money issues caused Mickelson to dance with danger.
In 2017, a long and tangled relationship with notorious sports gambler and quasi-underworld figure Billy Walters ended when Walters was sent to prison on an insider trading rap, with which Mickelson was embroiled. Walters had floated Mickelson’s action for years, and in the summer of 2012, Walters, a major investor in Dean Foods, heavily encouraged Mickelson to buy shares of the company’s stock. Shortly thereafter, the stock value increased by 40 percent. Mickelson cashed out, and a significant percentage of his $931,000 earnings reportedly went to repaying Walters for gambling debts.
The FBI investigated Mickelson, and in the end he avoided prosecution on a functional technicality. But the recklessness of the entire episode spoke to the treacherous edges around which Phil was now skating. Walters nursed hard feelings about what he considered Mickelson’s betrayal in refusing to take his side during the investigation. His five-year sentence was commuted by then-President Donald Trump in 2021, and he is now working on a tell-all book set to come out next year that is sure to cause his first while running buddy far more agita then Shipnuck’s judiciously calibrated biography .
Walters has deep connections in the professional golf ecosystem, and Mickelson is by no means the only player to befriend him. But he is the only one to be investigated and narrowly avoid prosecution as a result. And from his Walters relationship to his massive gambling losses, it’s clear Phil is open to—and perhaps even seeking—risk. Like say, riding extra hard for a highly lucrative All-Stars-only tour financed by a dangerous regime. Although, as Shipnuck points out, there is an element of hypocrisy to the Saudi response.
“All the players go over there and take the Saudi money for their annual event on the European Tour,” Shipnuck says. “Other sports are doing business with the Saudis, but you have to follow the script. You’re ‘growing the game.’ ‘I’m a golfer, not a politician.’ Everybody rolls their eyes, but the script has been vetted and accepted by the public. Phil said the quiet parts out loud. He was just too blunt. That’s what shocked people.”
Whether self-induced financial strain, the Sisyphean pressure cooker of self-generating greatness, or whatever various other issues he’s dealing with, it’s clear that golf’s treasured clown prince is at a point of genuine reckoning. Per Shipnuck: “He’s really at a crossroads here. Is he going to go back to the tour? Is he going to throw in with the Saudis? Is he going to try and work both sides of the street? Also, how is he going to plot his reentry with the golfing public? I guess he’s not ready to answer those questions yet. By skipping the PGA, he just bought some more time.”
He’ll have to offer answers at some point, though. At least if he wants back into the public’s eyes—and hearts. With June almost approaching, the drama will only become more complex. When will we see Phil again? Surely he’ll show up for the US Open in Brookline, Massachusetts, for a chance at the one major that still eludes him? Is it really possible that he will play the initial LIV tour event in London starting June 9, still risking more damage to his reputation? The devil is in the details.
“Phil’s a complicated person,” Shipnuck says. “He’s had a big life. There’s been some messiness, and maybe a little bit of a reckoning that goes way beyond Saudi Arabia. When he does return to public life, maybe he’s going to speak about it candidly or maybe we’re just going to learn about it in different ways. This much I know: There are many deeper issues.”
Elizabeth Nelson is a Washington, DC-based journalist, television writer, and singer-songwriter in the garage-punk band the Paranoid Style.