Sports

How Phil Mickelson Out-Mickelsoned Himself

What the golfer’s dalliance with Saudi Arabia revealed, and what comes next.

Phil Mickelson smiling.
Phil Mickelson smiles during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International on Feb. 1, 2022 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

As recently as the end of last week, a start-up backed by Saudi Arabian government cash looked poised to do real damage to the PGA Tour, the circuit that has been home to the world’s best golfers for half a century. For the Saudis, this new tour was a way to burnish their Western reputation and shift focus from rampant humanitarian abuses, and they had what seemed like an effective plan. Two-time major champion Greg Norman came aboard to head LIV Golf, the company building the new tour, and the Saudis floated new, more player-friendly competition formats than what the PGA Tour offers its top talent. Most importantly, they waved loads of cash in front of some of the tour’s biggest stars, hoping to woo them away from a tour that asks golf’s cream of the crop to share a lot of the pie with less famous professional golfers. It seemed like it was working, until, in a flash, it wasn’t. The man who started the unraveling: Phil Mickelson, who torched the Saudis’ proposal and perhaps his own reputation with one stunning quote.

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Reports had connected the six-time major winner and fan favorite to Saudi organizers going back to at least early 2020. It turned out, though, that his involvement was much deeper than those stories indicated. Mickelson paid for lawyers to draft the new tour’s operating agreement, as he revealed to longtime golf journalist Alan Shipnuck in an interview for a forthcoming biography. Mickelson’s motives were clear: At minimum, he wanted to use the Saudi threat to extract concessions from the PGA Tour, namely to reserve a bigger slice of its revenue for top players. But Mickelson went further in his remarks to Shipnuck.

“We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson said of his prospective Saudi benefactors. He continued:

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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 Saudi league] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.

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It was a stunning thing to read verbatim, even if it only confirmed what was obvious—that the players interested in the Saudi tour were willing to overlook human-rights violations so long as they got a big enough check. Normally, golfers do a better job couching their Saudi dalliances. A common platitude among players who tee it up at the annual Saudi International is that they’re in the Middle East to “grow the game.” Some take the less diplomatic but at least sellable line that they’re golfers, not politicians. It’s all a dodge, but the facade has been enough to carry on. Phil’s justification was not.

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Mickelson said those words in November, and Shipnuck released them on Feb. 17, a Thursday. By Sunday, Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 9 player and perhaps the biggest fish available to the Saudis, said he was sticking with the PGA Tour. World No. 12 Bryson DeChambeau followed later in the day, albeit with noncommittal language. World No. 8 Xander Schauffele did the same on Wednesday. The effort is not dead forever, as the Saudis have practically limitless funds and Norman is already signaling that LIV Golf will sue the PGA Tour over its threat to issue bans to players who sign up with the Saudis. But it now seems unlikely that a full-blown, Saudi-backed PGA Tour competitor will emerge any time soon. And what comes next for Mickelson, on the course and off, is at this point an open question.

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The 51-year-old left-hander has problems that go beyond whatever hit his pride has taken. He lost sponsorships with Amstel Light and KPMG. The beer brand was probably worried about the public backlash. The auditor was probably more worried about upsetting Saudi Arabia, with which it does lots of lucrative business. Mickelson, who understands that the Saudi government is not all that friendly or forgiving, issued a statement on Tuesday that tried to solve all of his problems at once.

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It was part defense (“my actions throughout this process have always been with the interest of golf, my peers, sponsors, and fans”), part apology (“it was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words), and part attempt to reassure the Saudis (“the specific people I have worked with are visionaries and have only been supportive”). He ended with a vow to take “some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.” That note prompted speculation that the PGA Tour might have quietly suspended him, a la Johnson in 2012. Nobody’s said one way or the other.

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Mickelson’s words were the wrong mix of stunningly honest and honestly stunning. But while he claims that those comments didn’t reflect his “true feelings or intentions,” the truth is that they were not far out of character. For his entire career, Mickelson has tried to pull off a difficult balancing act, oscillating between being golf’s everyman and a cartoonishly self-absorbed rich guy who is aggressively out for himself. This month, he broke the seesaw.

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Golf fans, on the whole, really like Mickelson, and he has always made a convincing show that he loves them back. His 2021 PGA Championship win at Kiawah Island, South Carolina, when he became the oldest major champion ever, was memorable both for his fantastic play and the days-long love affair between the golfer and the crowd. He flashed thumbs-ups all over the Ocean Course, and on his 72nd hole, the gallery coalesced behind him like he was leading them to salvation.

Mickelson has always cultivated his reputation as the people’s golfer. Dazzling shot-making and a good sense of humor helped. He is also a legendary tipper, a prolific autograph signer, and a decent (or at least willing) comedian. Circumstance made Mickelson a counterweight to Tiger Woods, a far better and far less personable player. Woods could (and did) generate louder roars and more affection than anyone, but he didn’t give it back to galleries the way Mickelson did. Woods’ tunnel vision made him great and also gave Mickelson the lane to be No. 1 in gregariousness while No. 2 on the course. Mickelson was an affable white guy in a sport adored by millions of people who fit that demographic. Many of them would’ve gravitated toward him even if he weren’t in their living rooms all the time—whether on tour, in a commercial, or giving a taped lesson. His hinge-and-hold method for chipping? Yeah, it works like a charm.

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There is an inherent tension in a golfer taking up a populist mantle, but it has gotten extra tense in Mickelson’s case, and not just because his advertising prowess and on-course success made him into a human billboard. Mickelson has never been shy, not that he has to be, about how much he loves making buckets of cash. He was once a relief defendant in a Securities and Exchange Commission investigation into insider trading. The agency didn’t accuse him of a crime, and he paid back $1 million that he’d made on an insider stock tip. The SEC said Mickelson got the tip from a gambler who Mickelson owed money. (Mickelson enjoys some side action, in golfing parlance.) In 2021, he said he’d never return to a tournament in Detroit after a local paper published a (true) story about a bookie cheating him out of $500,000 years earlier. Mickelson then said he would come back to the Rocket Mortgage Classic if enough people signed a pledge to do a random act of kindness. So, he was really doing it for the good people of Michigan all along, you see. On the flip side, he has a history of dogging the people who run tournaments. A frequent target is the United States Golf Association, which stages the U.S. Open, the governing body behind the only major he has yet to win. For Phil Mickelson, self-obsessed populist, this is what taking a moral stand looks like: going after the USGA for its maximum club length rule.

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Given his history and personality, I’m willing to believe that Mickelson could earnestly, if deludedly, believe he was fighting the good fight alongside the Saudis. He thinks the PGA Tour hoards media-rights money that should go directly to the players. While that is not an accurate reflection of how the tour works, he might really think his cause is noble. Along the same line, his defense of the Saudi project makes it sound like he’s marching into a lion’s den to help PGA Tour players who can’t do it themselves. “I still chose to put myself at the forefront of this to inspire change, taking the hits publicly to do the work behind the scenes,” Mickelson said in his statement this week. Spend your entire career trying to walk the line between CEOs and autograph seekers, and you could convince yourself easily enough that a Machievellian cash grab is somehow in service of the greater good.

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It’s clearer this month than it’s ever been who Mickelson is and what constituencies he serves. But I doubt that, in the eyes of most golf fans, he’ll ever be seen as a villain. Mickelson will be back on a course at some point, and probably not just on some watered-down version of the Saudi tour. The Masters in April seems a likely return point, and if he does show up there he won’t get booed or heckled. The patrons at Augusta National don’t do that to anyone, and crowds at PGA Tour events rarely come down hard on any one player, and when they did in 2021—on the insufferable DeChambeau—the tour put a stop to it. Just as importantly, a lot of fans don’t care about the sport’s internal politics, or about golf’s intersection with ethics and morality. If Mickelson’s biggest supporters feel disappointed in him now, he’ll win them back with one of his hellacious seeds into a fairway and a nice wink as he walks after it.

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It will always be public record that Mickelson debased himself at the feet of the Saudi government. His peers will respect him less. Rory McIlroy, one of the politest athletes alive, told reporters, “I don’t want to kick someone while he’s down, obviously, but I thought [his comments] were naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant.” But it’s telling that, despite all the criticism that’s come his way over the last week, Mickelson hasn’t walked away from the Saudis, and has actually made a public effort to repair that relationship. He has good reason to figure that, after a short time away, his fans will forgive him and he’ll be able to get right back to buck-raking. And he might just be right.

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