A year ago, literally to the day – June 8, 2022 – Phil Mickelson took the mic for the first time in months, making his first public appearance since his golf exile. He looked skinny, unshaven, even shocked. The persona of everyone friendly with fans was gone, replaced by a sober, chastened man shell.
What a difference a year makes.
In early 2022, Mickelson’s reputation evaporated in nuclear heat after he called the ruling Saudi regime a “scary mother”.[expletive]s” … while simultaneously suggesting that murder and homophobia were a fair price to pay to reshape a professional golf circuit. He was derided as an insensitive cynic, valuing the dollar at the expense of human rights , and destroyed in an instant a reputation he had spent decades building.
Here’s what we’ve since learned: Like it or not, Mickelson was pretty much exactly right on every point. If anything, he wasn’t cynical enough.
It’s worth revisiting the whole quote Mickelson gave biographer Alan Shipnuck for context:
“They are scary mothers[expletive]s to get involved with. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible human rights record. They execute people there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a unique opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour works. They were able to get by with manipulative, coercive and heavy-handed tactics because we players had no recourse. Such a nice guy [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] seems like, unless you have leverage, it won’t do the right thing. And the Saudi money (Public Investment Fund) finally gave us that leverage. I’m not even sure I want [the league that would become LIV Golf] succeed, but the mere thought of it allows us to get things done with the [PGA] Visit.”
As the shots are announced, it is at Babe-Ruth-pointing-towards-the-stands. Whether Mickelson accurately foresaw events unfolding the way they did, or simply engaged in some wishful thinking that turned out to be on target, isn’t really the question. Assuming the PGA Tour-PIF merger removes all regulatory hurdles, the vast leverage of Saudi money has indeed just reshaped the entire PGA Tour. Already, between high purses, an impending team element, and potential no-cut events, LIV’s influence has fundamentally altered the trajectory of golf for decades.
As for Monahan’s “manipulative, coercive and heavy-handed tactics” toward players, well…note how Monahan treated Rory McIlroy, who has spent the last year and a half defending the honor of the PGA Tour, for offered as, in his words, a “sacrificial lamb”. Despite all the talk from Monahan about the PGA Tour being a players’ organization, the players weren’t even given a ceremonial seat at the table for the PGA Tour-PIF negotiations.
Mickelson likes to do his hair, the cliche goes, as the smartest guy in the room. But when he literally nails golf’s biggest upset in generations, well…like it or not, he’ll be strutting.
Of course, his assessment of the ruling Saudi regime – which nearly torpedoed the entire LIV enterprise – also remains accurate. But as Tuesday showed, the PGA Tour is doing just fine, compromising morals and principles to pile dollars even higher; Mickelson was also ahead of the curve.
Following the announcement of the PGA-PIF merger, many fans loudly proclaimed that they were done with golf, much the same way the sports world proclaimed at the start of 2022. that it was over with Mickelson. But what happened at this year’s Masters – Mickelson’s first since his comments became public – gives a pretty strong indication of how the Saudi-funded PGA Tour will be received from now on.
Late Sunday afternoon, just outside the Augusta National clubhouse, Mickelson – who had just put the finishing touches on a run that would leave him tied for second place in the tournament – hosted the eminences of Augusta National with a broad smile. He shook hands with green jacket after green jacket, and it was as if nothing at all had happened.
The three-time Masters winner had spent the previous Tuesday virtually silent at the Champions Dinner, an event he has picked up on regularly in the past. But on Sunday, with the benefit of exceptional golf, the support of Augusta’s National Gallery and the simple passage of time, Mickelson returned to golf’s inner circles and the golf world moved on as normal.
Next week’s US Open at the Los Angeles Country Club will be a fascinating look at the cascading and colliding narratives around Mickelson. Will the Cali crowd cheer Phil or boo him? Will the USGA dare to group Mickelson with Rory McIlroy on Thursday and Friday, or will the golf gods do the same on the weekend?
No matter what, Mickelson will keep pushing forward, smiling and giving a thumbs up until the end.