The relationship between professional athletes and the press is fraught by its very nature, moreso in the wake of Naomi Osaka suggesting that media questioning is injurious to her mental health. However, at this week’s Rocket Mortgage Classic, two of golf’s biggest stars seemed more concerned about damage to their pride and ego.
Start with Phil Mickelson. He took exception to a Detroit News article detailing how he had been cheated out of a gambling win more than 20 years ago by a local bookie with ties to organized crime. Mickelson’s attorney acknowledged the accuracy of the report, but the six-time major winner fixated on the timing of it, suggesting it was an effort to embarrass him and the tournament. He repeatedly slammed the author of the story as “opportunistic,” “selfish” and “divisive,” then declared he wouldn’t return to the event.
“The lack of appreciation—I don’t see me coming back,” he fumed. “It’s hard for me or somebody to come in and bring other people and bring other entities involved to help out because you’re constantly being torn down, as opposed to brought together and built up.”
Mickelson has a point: If any other PGA Tour player fears it being revealed that he was soaked for $500,000 by a mobbed-up Michigan bookie then he might indeed have second thoughts about playing in Detroit, but Phil seems to have cornered the market on that status for now. The only person threatening adverse consequences for the Rocket Mortgage Classic and its charitable causes as a direct result of this story was Mickelson himself.
The events revealed by the Detroit News are old, but that doesn’t make it old news. The details had not previously been reported, and it’s indisputably news when a famous athlete is taken for a half-million by a shady gambler. Nevertheless, Mickelson’s outrage found predictable support among those social media lickspittles who are always eager to be seen by celebrities as loyal supplicants, pitiably slobbering for a like, retweet or (praise be!) a reply.
Mickelson has every right to object to coverage he considers unfair, but underlying his response is a troubling expectation that media must function as cheerleaders when the Tour comes to town, and that failure to do so—by writing unflattering stories about him, for example—hurts the event and its charitable beneficiaries. Conflating his embarrassment with damage to the Rocket Mortgage Classic is preposterous, and accusing a reporter of deliberately hurting citizens in a deprived city by denying them the pleasure of his presence is bush league nonsense.
By Friday, Mickelson was gently backpedaling on his threatened boycott, pointing to a fan’s online petition promising 50,000 signatories imploring him to change his mind. “The people here were so nice that I’ll make a deal with them,” he said. “If he gets 50,000 and all of those 50,000 agree to do one random act of kindness for another member of the community, I’m in.”
Thus can individual churlishness be rebranded as communal charity.
It all had a faint echo of George Costanza. “I think I could be a philanthropist,” George mused in a long-ago Seinfeld episode. “Then they would come to me and beg! And if I felt like it, I would help them out. And then they would owe me big time!”
Mickelson has a well-honed public persona that is engaging and funny. He’s been subject to many unflattering articles in a long career and typically handles it with aplomb. That he chose to wage this war—and in doing so amplify the story to a much wider audience than it might otherwise have reached—seems an uncharacteristic fumble.
Not so uncharacteristic was the misstep of Bryson DeChambeau, whose Wednesday press conference was notable for his insistence that a final-nine 44 when leading the U.S. Open two weeks ago was down to “luck.” He refused to speak with media after playing Thursday and Friday on his way to missing the cut. It happens that players sometimes blow off the press after a lousy day. It’s not a capital offense. But DeChambeau wasn’t ducking questions about poor play but rather inquiries about why his longtime, long-suffering caddie Tim Tucker quit between a Wednesday practice round and a Thursday tee time. Those questions can and will wait until next time.
More significantly, DeChambeau was the defending champion at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. He is also personally sponsored by Rocket Mortgage. At least one of those attachments comes with obligations that a mature professional would honor. Ignoring both might reasonably have Rocket Mortgage wondering what exactly they are paying for.
It was at this event in 2020 that DeChambeau was widely criticized for suggesting—after a terse exchange with a cameraman who filmed him reacting angrily to a bad shot—that golf media needed to protect his brand and not show players in a poor light. For all his positive attributes, DeChambeau struggles to handle the emotions that attend uncomfortable questioning by the press. That he seems no better equipped for it this year than he was last year reflects poorly on his willingness to learn, or on his team’s willingness to teach.
Mickelson and DeChambeau are usually better in their approach to media than they showed this week. On Tuesday, both will return to cheerful glad-handing when they participate in The Match on July 6 alongside Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers. It’s a hit and giggle of little consequence, but it will illustrate a prevailing attitude toward the press: media that applaud and help sling product are good, media that pose awkward questions are bad. It’s the same binary equation beloved by bullshitters the world over. Not just in golf. And not just in sport.
Published at Golfweek.com, July 3, 2021.