For someone who just a few years ago was perilously proximate to a federal insider trading prosecution, Phil Mickelson has developed a commendable interest in regulatory processes.
This week he’s been in a Twitter snit about a new rule announced by the game’s governing bodies that would reduce the maximum length of a club from 48 inches to 46. That’s about 1.5 inches shorter than Mickelson’s typical gamer driver and shorter still than one he used to win a sixth major championship in May.
“Stupid is as stupid does,” he acerbically tweeted, echoing a well-worn adage from Forrest Gump’s momma. “Really though, are the amateurs trying their best to govern the professional game the stupid ones? Or the professionals for letting them?”
Who among us can’t empathize with an aging stag shorn of shaft length as he tries to keep up with the young bucks? But note how Mickelson repeatedly disparages the governing body’s staff as stupid people doing stupid things. You’d be forgiven for assuming it must have been the USGA’s CEO, Mike Whan, who was taken for $500,000 by a mobbed-up Michigan bookie, or that it was his secretary who hit a moving ball in a U.S. Open then tried to brazen it out as clever strategy.
The new maximum length of a club is governed by a model local rule, which means that it’s more of a suggestion than an edict, something tours or tournaments may choose to implement if they are so minded. Mickelson’s fellow PGA Tour players, it turns out, are so minded. This statement came from Tour headquarters: “The PGA Tour Player Advisory Council recently reviewed the subject and we have concluded that the PGA Tour will implement the Local Rule on Jan. 1, 2022.”
Ever the gambler, Mickelson doubled down.
“It is extremely disappointing to find out that the PGA Tour adopted the new USGA rule through the media,” he wrote in another tweet. “I don’t know of any player who had any say or any kind of representation in this matter. I do know many are wondering if there’s a better way.”
“Many are wondering…” That’s the red flag fig leaf favored by those claiming widespread (but unsubstantiated) support for imprudent (and invariably unsubstantiated) assertions.
Mickelson’s criticism of the USGA is textbook political grandstanding: express shock at a decision you have long known is coming (limiting club length has been underway since 2016); denounce it as more evidence of poor governance by unaccountable elites; claim there was a lack of consultation with the people most impacted; and finally, cast blame on a soft target because you lack the sincerity to chide your pals who actually made the policy decision at hand.
If Mickelson wants to excoriate as “stupid” the people who actually decided to shorten his shaft, he’d need to direct his barbs at Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas and the 17 other guys who make decisions as members of the Player Advisory Council. The hint is in the title: Player Advisory Council, a body wholly comprised of the very constituency Mickelson insists had no say or representation in the matter.
“I was in all those meetings when we discussed it for quite a while and I think the majority of players are on board with it,” said McIlroy, who chairs the Council.
But rather than blame the dining companions who are force-feeding him an unpalatable dish, Mickelson instead chooses to castigate the chef who put it on the menu as a choice. If you’re going to publicly denounce someone as “stupid,” best do it with faceless bureaucrats one doesn’t have to face in the locker room. If the PGA Tour had a Strokes Gained Gaslighting statistic, Mickelson would be its runaway leader.
His attack on the USGA relies on the same twaddle peddled by generations of professionals who feel wronged: that the governing body are amateurs. That’s true only in the sense that USGA staff are not paid to play golf. In the conduct of their jobs, they are professionals. Whether setting up golf courses, running championships, governing equipment standards or maintaining the rulebook, these are not hobbyists. Disagreeing with their actions—and sometimes inaction—doesn’t diminish their professionalism. The “amateur” label is a lazy, disingenuous gibe.
Mickelson is an experienced hand at trying to undermine golf institutions that aren’t accommodating his latest personal needs. In addition to his frequent sniping at the USGA, he single-handedly ensured that a task force over which he held tremendous sway wrested control of the Ryder Cup selection process from the PGA of America. Veteran observers have already registered hints about his next target. In a recent podcast with Gary Williams, Mickelson bemoaned the percentage of revenue top players receive from PGA Tour coffers—the same pitch trotted out by evangelists for the Saudi-financed super league concept. But then, the Crown Prince is proven to have more generous limits when it comes to the equipment he permits employees to use when carrying out their work.
There are ample valid reasons to criticize the USGA, and numerous players this week expressed the reasonable view that regulating club length need not be a priority. As one of the finest players of his generation, Mickelson’s opinion carries weight, as it should. But using cheap insults and conveniently ignoring basic facts leaves an unshakeable sense that this particular sideswipe is motivated by nothing more noble than self-interest and pettiness.
Published at Golfweek.com, October 16, 2021.