Phil Mickelson’s support for doomed Saudi golf super league is out of bounds, and not out of character
The first golf tournament I attended was the 1994 Canadian Open, captured by Nick Price, when I was 16. Two vivid memories remain.
One of my father and I getting stuck in the bottleneck that forms at Glen Abbey Golf Club as fans ascend a steep hill from the valley following the 15th hole. Our unsuccessful venture meant missing the 1-iron Price struck wonderfully on 16 to set up an eagle, which ultimately proved to be the difference in his one-shot win over Mark Calcavecchia.
The other is from the start of our day. Upon arriving, my left-handed father insisted we find Phil Mickelson, then a young southpaw star known for his wizardry with wedges. It didn’t take us long and Mickelson didn’t disappoint.
On the fourth hole, Mickelson hit one of his famous greenside flop shots, sending fans into a tizzy. I’d like to believe I’m not making this up all these years later, but I recall thinking it was an unnecessary tactic given the shot at hand. I’m sure I told my dad so.
Mickelson’s modus operandi, on and off the golf course, has always been to prove how truly talented and smart he is, even if the shot he’s playing isn’t smart, and the tales he’s spinning aren’t true.
Inside the ropes, the resulting follies are partly what’s endeared him to many. The guy who continually shoots himself in the foot evokes an everyman quality, especially in golf. On the dais and behind the mic, Mickelson has often shot from the lip on subjects average Joes neither cared about nor comprehended. Such as California tax laws.
In the instances where Mickelson did take heat, apologies always followed. “I’m such an idiot” is what he famously uttered after his infamous 18th-hole blunders to blow the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot. But those four words could have substituted for his saying sorry after he hit a moving ball to purposely break the rules at the Open 12 years later, or when he chose a press conference setting to blast Tom Watson’s Ryder Cup captaincy, Watson just a few chairs over from Lefty as the spiteful words spilled from his mouth.
Never, however, has his public image been tarnished. To many fans, and some of his peers, Mickelson was right to embarrass the USGA at Shinnecock Hills and a Hall of Famer in Watson at Gleneagles in Scotland. Industry members thought otherwise, but they have never been Mickelson’s real concern. Whatever issue ailed him — gambling debts, insider trading troubles, changing equipment companies a week before the 2004 Ryder Cup — was solved with a thumbs up and a smile. Lots of thumbs, lots of smiles.
This time is different.
In potentially aligning himself with the proposed Super Golf League, an Asian Tour series largely financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, Mickelson has made his biggest bogey by far.
He has admitted to doing so for leverage, as a power move to force the PGA Tour to give up player media rights and therefore allow rich superstars to become even richer. He even claims to have helped pay lawyers to write the league’s operating agreement, according to a recently released excerpt from golf writer Alan Shipnuck’s forthcoming book. (A must-read excerpt, by the way.)
Clearly, Mickelson fancies himself as a leader of men. Just as Greg Norman, whom the Saudis have charged with heading the league as CEO of its LIV Golf Investments, did a quarter-century ago when he unsuccessfully tried to form a world golf tour to rival the PGA. Kindred spirits, they are.
Except nobody is following Mickelson. Today’s golf superstars — and only those players would make the Saudi league’s 40-man fields viable — have no need for greed. Certainly not if it means associating themselves with a regime known for horrific human rights abuses, one alleged to be responsible for the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
Rory McIlroy, for one, called Mickelson’s comments about contemplating a jump to the Saudi-backed circuit “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant, surprising, disappointing, sad.” Justin Thomas, a friend of Mickelson’s, also used the word “egotistical.” Even Bryson DeChambeau, rumoured to be the Saudis’ prime target, pledged his allegiance to the PGA Tour, although his statement read more as wanting to follow the crowd.
As much as the 51-year-old Mickelson has accomplished in his career — and it’s a hell of a lot — he is a senior citizen when it comes to professional golf and carries nowhere near the influence of McIlroy, Thomas, Jordan Spieth and others over this generation. Not to mention the currently injured and future PGA Tour part-timer Tiger Woods, who said from the start he had no interest in Saudi money.
Mickelson thought he could steer his peers into more power and money and they’d be grateful to him. But all they see is another one of his wildly errant shots, and they want no part of it.
What’s next for Mickelson then, with the Saudi league seemingly scuttled? Maybe another apology, maybe not. Maybe some clarification that he was never serious about following through on his threat. Or maybe he and Norman try to make it work somehow anyway. A league of players past their prime who are more than happy to bank guaranteed appearance fees, regardless from whence the money comes.
Because, as always with Mickelson, only one question remains regarding the criticism he is taking and will continue to take throughout this sordid affair.