Phil Mickelson has done so much to offend so many that it’s hard to know where to begin. With a publicly issued vomit of contrition in which he positioned himself as part victim, part martyr, part hero, and part sinner, Mickelson ultimately concluded Tuesday that it’s time for him to take some “time away” from golf.
That’s not to be confused with trying to take golf away from the PGA Tour. Nowhere in a lengthy statement of apology did Mickelson mention the PGA or its commissioner, a.k.a. Belmont native Jay Monahan. He did make sure, however, to defend the work of Saudi Arabian LIV Golf Investments officials for how they “passionately love golf” and are best positioned with “a clear plan” to improve a sport Mickelson claims “desperately needs change.”
It is those Saudi millions Mickelson was banking on to fund the Saudi Golf League, an alternative to the existing PGA Tour that Mickelson and Greg Norman supported. The dubious dalliance is what spawned this entire ugly chapter in golf, a sport so accustomed to leaning on its reputation for decorum and gentility but, at the moment, is busy drawing internal lines in the sand.
In the showdown at the PGA corral, Monahan won.
Mickelson’s plan crumbled around him. It was obvious in last weekend’s statements of PGA loyalty from the likes of Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, and more clear when a mandatory players-only meeting ahead of this weekend’s Honda Classic reportedly elicited no internal support for Mickelson. Rory McIlroy delivered a scathing rebuke of Mickelson for being “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant.”
But there was Mickelson Tuesday, still swinging away, doing so under the guise of being penitent, offering up a most convenient villain (other than himself of course) as early as the second sentence of a statement posted online. In claiming that reporter Alan Shipnuck published “off record comments” that were “shared out of context and without my consent,” Mickelson made himself the victim, going to the tired old playbook of blaming a messenger over the message.
Never mind that Shipnuck debunked it all, has receipts, and was on the receiving end of the phone call and conversation in question, with Mickelson willingly reaching out to discuss Shipnuck’s forthcoming unauthorized biography.
To recap: Mickelson’s precipitous fall from grace comes after his admissions to Shipnuck, in which his moral relativism revealed itself. Describing the Saudi investors as “scary [expletives]” he knew to be responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, he worked with them anyway because he needed their money. Considering the tales of his knee-buckling gambling habits and history of running afoul of the SEC for insider trading, who knows how much money he needs? But he also needed the leverage, he said, to fund a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
However legitimate Mickelson’s gripes might be on that score, however authoritarian the PGA Tour might feel to him for controlling its purse strings behind closed doors, it is not, in fact, a totalitarian government. That would be Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
So yes, many of Mickelson’s intentions are sincere attempts to get players more of the vast millions the tax-exempt PGA Tour collects on the backs of their play and stardom, to allow players to benefit financially from things as simple as videos of their own shots or as cutting edge as NFTs of their image and likenesses. All of that should happen.
But while Mickelson danced with the devil, Monahan appealed to the better angels, upping the money pool for the FedEx Cup, tapping the player impact program to reward the tour’s top engagers with the public, making changes that could eventually put those top earners alongside their brethren in the NBA and NFL.
Monahan dropped his hammer, both with the intangible notion of loyalty and the tangible promise of extra riches, using a combination of power, influence, and bank deposits that successfully kept the cadre of young and future golf stars — from the aforementioned to Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth, and Collin Morikawa — in the fold. Monahan successfully fought back the challenge from Mickelson and other older golfers who were eager to cash in on a late-career windfall.
That’s where Mickelson tried to position himself Tuesday, the martyr willing to stand up where no one else would or could, a stand bolstered by his 30-plus years of being the hero, the good guy who flashed his thumbs-ups, engaged with the media, and interacted with volunteers and fans alike.
Much as I’ve done my part to extend that narrative, covering and writing about Mickelson, it all felt so out of touch and self-serving, because finally, he was the admitted sinner, worn down by the many decades of public life who needs now to take “some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.”
Was it really only nine months ago Mickelson was making history as the oldest man to win a major?
There he was, striding toward the 18th green at South Carolina’s Kiawah Island, taking a walk straight into history, a 50-year-old about to win the PGA, his sixth career major. With a sea of jubilant fans ready to explode in celebration, legendary CBS broadcaster Jim Nantz described Mickelson as taking “his legacy to a whole new level.”
Less than year a later, the dramatic footage feels as if it belongs to a different era, before Mickelson took a blowtorch to that legacy, before everybody’s favorite Lefty backed himself into such an indefensible corner he had no choice but to apologize and disappear.
Not nine months after that historic victory, Mickelson is on a different kind of island, a solitary outlier to the world that once embraced him so heartily, at the lowest point of his career.