BROOKLINE, Mass. — Phil Mickelson has addressed the US media many times, occasionally after he said something controversial, but Monday was the first time he did so as an employee of the ruthless Saudi Arabian government. That is what he is. He can duck it, soften it, or change the topic, but that is what he is.
He left for Saudi-funded LIV Golf for a lot of reasons. Like the money, for one. Also, the paycheck. And then there is the cash. Mickelson has spent his whole career parlaying his Everyman image into riches, and now he found something that pays better than the image, so he took it.
Mickelson spent most of his 26-minute press conference at the US Open not trying to create another headline. He says he doesn’t want to fight with the PGA Tour publicly anymore. He says he respects those who have “differing opinions.” He wants to take LIV money and play in majors and be a fan favorite again. He wants everything but your questions.
Mickelson has a beard these days, which means the only thing he shaves is the truth. He said the PGA Tour has done “a lot of things I’ve agreed with and a lot of things I didn’t agree with. I’ve supported them either way.” This would be news to the PGA Tour stars who stuck around.
Asked whether putting a wedge in the golf world was the purpose of LIV, Mickelson said, “The point of starting it up, I’ll have to defer to the guys at LIV Golf. It was their idea.” That is a tune change from when he told author Alan Shipnuck that he helped pay for lawyers to write LIV’s operating agreement.
Mickelson has been looking for a way to sell this decision for more than a year, to the point where some of the explanations contradict each other. He has ridiculed the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed.” In May 2021, while various iterations of a rival golf league were being floated, Mickelson framed the whole enterprise dishonestly. It wasn’t about oil money, you see. It was about improving the game for the fans.
“It’s a big deal to give up control of your schedule,” Mickelson said then. “I don’t know if the players would be selfless enough to do that.”
“I think the fans would love it because they would see the best players play exponentially more times,” Mickelson said then. “Instead of four or five times, it would be 20 times.”
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This was just an outrageous distortion. The best players in the world already faced each other four times a year in majors; another team in the Players Championship; three teams in the FedEx Cup playoffs; two to four times in World Golf Championship events; and in the Ryder and Presidents Cup in alternating years. That’s at least 11 times, not four or five … and we haven’t gotten even to all the PGA Tour events that include many top players …
…but never mind all that! Phil said Monday that one reason he joined LIV is that “with fewer tournaments, it allows me to have more balance in my life. It allows me to do things off the golf course that I always wanted to do.”
So which is it? Does he want the best players to compete against each other more, or less? Pick whichever one sounds good to you, please – but first, pour a cup of Phil’s coffee.
Of course, we will see the best players in the world compete against each other less now than any time in memory. That’s what LIV has done. No reasonable person can say this is better for golf.
Mickelson has always presented himself as golf’s Man of the People. It was a marketing tool as much as anything; being popular is profitable. But as long as Mickelson charmed fans – signing autographs, cracking jokes, giving the thumbs-up – who cared what his motivation was? Fans paid for tickets; Mickelson made them feel important; they bought his merchandise from him. Everybody won.
In the last few years, though, Mickelson has been swimming so deep in his own nonsense that he has lost all sense of where he is heading. He threw small fits that painted a picture of a man who believed he was never wrong. He hit a moving putt at the US Open and claimed it was a calculated strategy, a ridiculous defense he later retracted. He pouted when the Detroit News ran an accurate story about his gambling, then said he would only return to Detroit’s PGA Tour stop if 50,000 fans signed a petition and each committed to an act of kindness. All of this was silly, but it gave us a hint at his mindset: After all these years, Phil thinks he can get away with anything.
Mickelson has made $95 million in PGA Tour prize money. He has made hundreds of millions in endorsements. He said in the last week that he was in danger of blowing his fortune on gambling before he dealt with his problem. Now he is apparently trying to regain his financial footing with blood money.
Gambling addiction is serious and miserable for anybody, no matter how much money they have. For that, Mickelson deserves empathy. But we can probably drop the Man of the People bit.
The Saudi tour is not designed to be profitable. It’s an expensive PR gambit that hinges on having big names. Mickelson is the biggest name to join, and he gives the Saudis the legitimacy they crave. They’re not paying him for his present-day skills; he turns 52 this week and will probably never be a top-50 player in the world again.
So here is Phil Mickelson in 2022, having to explain that yes, he actually does empathize with families who lost loved ones on 9/11, and no, he does not condone human-rights violations. A professional lifetime of chasing paychecks led to the biggest and most offensive one imaginable.