It’s difficult to ascertain exactly which character trait—Hubris? Hypocrisy? Indecency?—motivates someone to furiously demand the freedom to exercise his rights while being applauded by benefactors from a regime that dismembers its critics for doing just that. Or to pause his guzzling from the teat of Middle Eastern royalty only long enough to denounce the “obnoxious greed” of an organization that made him an enormous sum of money (which is not to presume he still has it).
For all the moments that have defined Phil Mickelson’s estimable career—the emotional first major victory at Augusta National, the improbable last one at Kiawah Island, even the fumbled finish at Winged Foot—it’s his intemperate comments in Saudi Arabia this week that risk defining his enduring reputation. At best, his words suggest that what he possesses in self-regard, he lacks in self-awareness. And at worst? That he’s a willing dissembler for a government bent on using golf to sportswash its human-rights depredations and war crimes.
Mickelson’s next moves will determine the extent to which one of the sport’s great legacies will be indelibly stained.
In an interview with Golf Digest’s John Huggan, the six-time major winner bemoaned most everything about how the PGA Tour operates. Chief among his gripes is not being granted unfettered latitude with his media, denied the right to bring his own camera crew inside the ropes and to otherwise monetize the shots he hits. He lamented having to pay the Tour a $1 million fee every time he stages a made-for-TV match (receipts will show Turner Sports signed those checks) and further claimed the Tour is sitting on $20 billion in digital assets, a figure conjured out of thin air as seamlessly as Jamal Khashoggi disappeared into it.
It was all enough to make one wonder if Mickelson has ever considered the source of the $95 million he has earned competing on the PGA Tour, excluding bonuses, like the $8 million Player Impact Program payout he preemptively claimed in December before the PIP had even concluded.
Every major sports league is built on aggregating the collective media rights of athletes to maximize revenue from broadcast partners and sponsors. Mickelson understands that, and he knows the same financial model that underpins the PGA Tour would apply to any Saudi-financed Super League concept. No broadcaster will sign on if players can simultaneously create their own content channels and dilute the product. But whether because he is being duped, duplicitous or desperate, Mickelson is shilling for the Saudis by parroting their talking points, trying to browbeat fellow stars into thinking they are being exploited and that their deserved pot of gold awaits at the end of the rainbow in Riyadh.
“My ultimate loyalty is to the game of golf and what it has given me,” he told Huggan, a statement that could only gain credibility if all but the first five words and the last one were deleted.
Mickelson’s greatest liability is a burning need to be the smartest guy in the room, hence the provenance of his “Figjam” nickname. But the smartest guy in the room doesn’t get soaked for $500,000 by a mobbed-up Michigan bookie. The smartest guy in the room doesn’t have to repay the government more than $1 million in ill-gotten gains because he was winged in an insider-trading prosecution. Heck, the smartest guy in the room doesn’t even stoop to slapping a moving ball in competition then brazen it out by insisting (incorrectly) that it was a clever use of the rules.
Now the smartest guy in the room is cozying up to a repressive regime to gain “leverage”—a word he used repeatedly—over the PGA Tour to settle his personal grievances, which he shamelessly casts as a good faith bid to prevent rampant profiteering off the back of his fellow players.
“The Tour only understands leverage. And now the players are getting some of that,” he said. “So things are changing and will continue to change. I just hope the leverage doesn’t go away. If it does, we’ll be back to the status quo.”
That comment shouldn’t go unnoticed by the people who paid him to play the Saudi International and who hope to secure his capricious loyalty for the breakaway Super League, because Mickelson inadvertently said the quiet part out loud. While he is a useful tool for Saudi sportswashing ambitions, the Saudis also serve a purpose for Mickelson. Leverage exists only as long as the threat of players splitting from the PGA Tour exists. As soon as players sign with the Saudis, they have no leverage, least of all with their new employer. It’s ill-advised to play chicken with people who cut off heads when crossed.
There are many legitimate complaints one can level against the PGA Tour over its governance, policies, culture, transparency and product. These are all issues Mickelson could have impacted in his three decades as a member, but he gave his last day of service to the Players Advisory Council more than 20 years ago. In the intervening years, he has benefitted greatly from the manner in which the Tour is administered and given little in return.
And now his apparent thirst for cash has Mickelson acting as a quisling for the Crown Prince, threatening to put to the torch a tour on which he built his career and on which hundreds of others sustain theirs. “It is the Tour’s obnoxious greed that has really opened the door for opportunities elsewhere,” he said.
The problem Mickelson faces is those opportunities only really exist if others walk through that door alongside him. One man—even a man of considerable accomplishment—does not a tour make, especially a man north of 50 with a limited competitive runway ahead. And for all the swagger, bluster and threats, not a single player, not even Mickelson himself, has had the courage to cross that threshold.
Published at Golfweek.com, February 5, 2022.