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ONCE A MAN OF THE PEOPLE, PHIL MICKELSON IS HIDING IN A BUNKER
Rather than face questions, Lefty is avoiding the PGA Championship, a cowardly move after his embrace of the Saudis — despite their human rights atrocities — as a new book details his gambling losses
Where oh where is the ballsy maverick, the man who never feared life and always tempted fate? Has anyone seen the daredevil who squeezed a prayer between two pine trees to win his third Masters, who chose driver and banged a tee shot off the hospitality tent to lose another U.S. Open, who amassed $40 million-plus in gambling losses during the early 2010s?
Is it time to post an all-points bulletin for Phil Mickelson, who is running and hiding from the crisis of a lifetime and must be dragged from his dark hole to the closest microphone? How cowardly to disappear after he has been exposed as a greedy, crooked bastard — a creep who supports a rival golf tour bankrolled by a country known for human rights atrocities and the murder and dismemberment of journalist Jamal Khashoggi?
To refresh memories, Mickelson was callous and contemptible when he said of the Saudi Arabian government: “They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, as players, had no recourse. And the Saudi money finally has given us that leverage.
“I’m not even sure I want it to succeed,” he concluded, “but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with this tour.”
If ever legions of Lefty-philes needed to hear from him, it’s now, as they scold themselves for ignoring all the tell-tale signs through the years. They never wanted to think Mickelson was anything but the people’s choice, the everyman who greeted them with warm smiles and thumbs-up gestures, prompting them to chant his name and continue their blind love-in at tour stops everywhere. They went deaf when the FBI and SEC launched probes into his connections with bookmakers who gave him insider-trading tips, including Billy Walters, who was found guilty on 10 charges and sentenced to five years in prison. And the published story out of Detroit last summer about “Dandy” Don DeSerrano — the mob-connected bookie who handled Mickelson’s betting action and stiffed him out of $500,000 — that couldn’t possibly be true. Not Our Phil.
Well, not to be a spoiler for those who also believed in Santa Claus, Lance Armstrong and Elizabeth Holmes, Our Phil is not who you thought he was. The reason he’s AWOL at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, in what should be the grand one-year anniversary of a victory that made him the oldest man to win a major championship, is his reluctance to face the heat. Mickelson is afraid to deal with fellow players embroiled in the wicked furor over competing tours, as well as media who want to know how he could be so flippant about Saudi Arabia, and, for that matter, gallery members who no longer are forgiving of his actions and words.
His wobbling legacy would be best served by jetting to Tulsa, sitting in a chair inside the media center and explaining himself for an hour or two. It would be an especially good idea considering the book that reported his Saudi comments and detailed the amount of his gambling losses — “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,’’ by longtime golf journalist Alan Shipnuck — is officially being released Tuesday. Also, his presence would rekindle fond memories of life before his fall from grace, when, a month before his 51st birthday, he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. One minute, Mickelson was one-upping Tom Brady as sport’s leading new-age guru, teaching us how to master our bodies and minds.
The next, he was blowing up his romance with the world. Rather than enjoy his place in golf’s pantheon, savor his six major titles and cruise into the broadcast booth of his choice, he chose the path of megalomania, preferring to attack the organization that enabled his wealth and fame via $95 million in career winnings. Nothing is wrong with competition for the Tour or any sports league. But to dismiss the unsavory involvement of the Saudis, while accusing PGA commissioner Jay Monahan of “obnoxious greed,” was a blind spot that won’t be forgotten. The longer Mickelson needs to answer important questions, the longer he’ll be viewed as the exiled hero who lost his way and conscience. His predicament grew uglier when the front man of LIV Golf, Greg Norman, mindlessly downplayed Khashoggi’s kidnapping and assassination in defending the Saudi series.
“We’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn from those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward,” Norman said.
Mistakes? A mistake would be blowing a comfortable lead at Augusta National, as he knows. A mistake would be forgetting to tip a server. A mistake would be blowing through a stop sign. Whatever goodwill Norman gained from his recent ESPN documentary, which lended a sympathetic hankie to his star-crossed career, is gone with his horrific lapse in perspective. Asked about the 81 people executed by the Saudis on one recent day, he said, “I don’t look into the politics of things.” And of the Saudis’ record on gay rights, Norman said, “I’m not sure whether I even have any gay friends, to be honest with you.”
Shark, meet Lefty.
Never has a genteel sport had two more repulsive people.
True, Mickelson apologized in a statement when the story exploded. But it smacked of a plea to longtime sponsors not to drop him — almost all did anyway — more than a true expression of regret. He went on to defend LIV Golf and its top officials as “visionaries.” Then he took an unprecedented course, looking inward but coming off as desperate and defensive.
“I have made a lot of mistakes in my life and many have been shared with the public. My intent was never to hurt anyone and I’m so sorry to the people I have negatively impacted. This has always been about supporting the players and the game and I appreciate all the people who have given me the benefit of the doubt,” he wrote.
“Despite my belief that some changes have already been made within the overall discourse, I know I need to be accountable. For the past 31 years I have lived a very public life and I have strived to live up to my own expectations, be the role model the fans deserve, and be someone that inspires others. I’ve worked to compete at the highest level, be available to media, represent my sponsors with integrity, engage with volunteers and sign every autograph for my incredible fans. I have experienced many successful and rewarding moments that I will always cherish, but I have often failed myself and others too. The past 10 years I have felt the pressure and stress slowly affecting me at a deeper level. I know I have not been my best and desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.”
Those thoughts need to be expanded, spoken for wide distribution, so the public can watch. For now, they are relegated to print and mean little.
It was understandable when Rory McIlroy, the last major champion not to defend his title, couldn’t play at St. Andrews in 2015 with a knee issue. The same obviously applies to Tiger Woods, the last PGA champion not to defend, when he was recovering from reconstructive knee surgery. In 1949, Ben Hogan couldn’t make it after his car was totaled by a Greyhound bus in a death-defying accident. But Mickelson is a no-show because he doesn’t want to deal with the backlash. He never has been sheepish about stating opinions about golf and life, but when challenged by waves of criticism, he doesn’t have the backbone to show his face.
So he’ll leave it to other players to answer a media barrage about LIV Golf, which is holding its inaugural, $20 million event next month in London. This as Monahan threatens players with suspensions if they defect and try even one event in the rival league, which has a schedule in place through 2025. “Sadly, the PGA Tour seems intent on denying professional golfers their right to play golf, unless it’s exclusively in a PGA Tour tournament,” Norman said. “Instead, the tour is intent on perpetuating its illegal monopoly of what should be a free and open market. The tour’s action is anti-golfer, anti-fan and anti-competitive.”
But the Tour IS pro-American and anti-murder. And those virtues alone, regardless of the lucrative purses available via the Saudis, make it a smarter play to stay with the PGA Tour. There will be defectors, such as Europe-based Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood, and Norman claims 16 of the world’s top 100 players will be in London — and six in the current top 50. Justin Thomas, among the top American players, suggests they not let the flagstick hit them on the ass.
“You know, it's like, ‘Look, if you want to go, go,’ ” Thomas said. “I mean, there's been plenty of guys that have been advocates of it and have just talked it up all the time and they have been guys behind the scenes that are saying, ‘I'm going, I'm doing this.’ And like my whole thing is, like just go then. Like stop going back and forth or like you say you're going to do this, it's like you can do — everybody's entitled to do what they want, you know what I mean? Like if I wanted to go play that tour, I could go play that tour. But I'm loyal to the PGA Tour and I've said that and I think there's a lot of opportunity for me to, I mean, break records, make history, do a lot of things on the PGA Tour I want to do.”
For all of Mickelson’s clout, it pales within the galaxy of Woods. And he has shown no interest, as he continues his comeback from a crash that left him lucky to be alive, in joining the new venture. As Phil fades from view, Tiger will be front and center at Southern Hills, where early practice rounds find him in much better health than his painful-to-watch limpfest at the Masters. “I’ve gotten a lot stronger since the Masters,’’ Woods told a group of reporters who followed him Sunday. “We went back to work on Tuesday (after Augusta). Monday was awful. I did nothing and Tuesday was leg day. So we went right back after it. We started ramping up a week or so ago, played a little bit more golf, and it was good. Everything is better.”
Everything? Including a right leg that nearly was amputated and needed a rod? An ankle and foot kept together with pins and screws? “It’s only going to keep getting stronger,” Woods said. “The more I use it, the more strength it gains. Am I ever going to have full mobility? No. Never again. But I’ll be able to get stronger. It’s going to keep getting better and stronger. It’s going to ache, but that’s the way it’s going to be.”
Truly, Tiger Woods has been to hell and back and, yet, he keeps finding his way to the golf course. To muster even a smidgen of compassion for Mickelson, in absentia, is impossible. You’ll next see him in London, we assume, flashing his new smiles for the Saudis.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.