A year ago, literally to this day – June 8, 2022 – Phil Mickelson stepped behind a microphone for the first time in months and made his first public appearance since going into golf exile. He looked thin, unshaven, even shocked. The fan-friendly everyman persona was gone, replaced by a chastened, sober shell of a man.
What a difference a year makes.
In early 2022, Mickelson’s reputation evaporated in nuclear heat after he called the Saudi Arabian ruling regime a “scary mother.”[expletive]s”…while at the same time suggesting that murder and homophobia were a fair price to pay to reimagine a professional golf tour. He was derided as a callous cynic who valued the dollar over human rights, and in an instant destroyed a reputation he had built over decades.
Here’s what we’ve since learned, though: Like it or not, Mickelson was pretty much exactly right on every point. At least he wasn’t cynical enough.
It’s worth revisiting the entire quote Mickelson gave to biographer Alan Shipnuck for context:
“They’re scary mom[expletive]s to join. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a terrible human rights record. They execute people there for being gay. Knowing all this, why should I even consider it? Because this is a one-time opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They got by with manipulative, coercive, strong tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. Just such a nice guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as if unless you have leverage, he won’t do the right thing. And the Saudi [Public Investment Fund] money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I want it [the league that would become LIV Golf] to succeed, but just the idea of it allows us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
As the so-called shots go, that’s at the Babe Ruth-pointing-to-the-tribunes level. Whether Mickelson accurately foresaw events as they did, or was simply engaging in some magical thinking that turned out to be on target, isn’t really the point. Assuming the PGA Tour-PIF merger removes all regulatory hurdles, the massive leverage of Saudi money has indeed just reshaped the entire PGA Tour. Already, between increased purses, a looming team element and potential no-cut events, the LIV influence has fundamentally changed the trajectory that golf has followed for decades.
As for Monahan’s “manipulative, coercive, forceful tactics” toward the players, well…note how Monahan treated Rory McIlroy, who spent the past year and a half defending PGA Tour honors, only to be offered as, in his words , a ‘sacrificial lamb’. Despite all the talk from Monahan about the PGA Tour as a player organization, the players weren’t even given a ceremonial seat at the table for the PGA Tour-PIF negotiations.
Mickelson likes to style himself, so the cliché goes, as the smartest man in the room. But when he captures golf’s greatest upheaval in generations to the letter, well…like it or not, he’ll be proud.
Of course, his assessment of the Saudi ruling regime – which torpedoed almost the entire LIV enterprise – also remains accurate. But as Tuesday showed, the PGA Tour is fine with compromising morality and principle to stack dollars even higher; Mickelson led the way there too.
In the wake of the announcement of the PGA/PIF merger, many fans loudly proclaimed they were done with golf, just as the sports world proclaimed it was done with Mickelson in early 2022. But what happened at this year’s Masters — Mickelson’s first since his comments went 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 round that would see him tie for second place in the tournament, greeted Augusta National eminences with a broad smile. He shook hands with green jacket after green jacket and it was as if nothing had happened at all.
The three-time Masters winner had been virtually silent the previous Tuesday at the Champions Dinner, an event he routinely took over in the past. But by Sunday, with the benefit of real golf, the support of the Augusta National Gallery and the simple passage of time, Mickelson re-entered the inner circles of golf and the golfing world went on as usual.
Next week’s US Open at Los Angeles Country Club will be a fascinating look at the cascading, clashing stories surrounding Mickelson. Will the Cali crowd cheer or boo Phil? Will the USGA dare to group Mickelson with Rory McIlroy on Thursday and Friday, or will the golf gods do the same over the weekend?
No matter what, Mickelson will keep walking the whole way, smiling and giving thumbs up.