‘It’s a pretty big fall’: How everything changed for Phil Mickelson in just one year

Sports

Try to imagine, as you watched the final moments of the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course last year, how you would feel if someone had told you — in that moment — Phil Mickelson was on a path to become the most divisive figure in professional golf.

How could the outpouring of affection that was unfolding, the throngs of jubilant fans chanting “Lefty! Lefty! Lefty!” as they stampeded over the ropes just so they could be close to him in the fairway, fade in a year’s time?

How far would the oldest major champion in history have to fall that he would choose, by his own accord, to not even defend the Wanamaker Trophy?

It happened, as Ernest Hemingway once described the act of going broke, gradually, then suddenly. But one year later, here we are, with Mickelson choosing to skip his second straight major, still mired in the controversy he set in motion by airing his frustrations with the PGA Tour and flirting with joining LIV Golf, the upstart professional tour financed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.

It would be unfair to classify Mickelson a pariah. He still has a legion of fans and a core group of peers who believe he has been singled out for an avalanche of criticism and framed as a scapegoat by a tour that is facing the existential threat of a rival golf league.

“We’re in a cancel culture right now,” said Webb Simpson, who considers Mickelson a close friend and mentor. “If you say one thing, or somebody digs up something in your past, they cancel you. There have been many situations out here, and in sports, where a player might have done something wrong, sure we can all agree, but I would rather be in an environment where it’s a forgiveness culture, not a cancel culture.

“I’m going to screw up. I know I’m going to screw up. I’m going to say things I don’t mean, or say things in the moment that sound bad, and I would hope people give me the benefit of doubt. And yeah, there should be consequences for when we screw up, but I don’t think it should be as much as we’ve seen where it’s like ‘Hey, you’re out. You’re gone.'”

But the damage Mickelson did to his own reputation in his attempt to leverage both sides — trying to use the prospect of joining LIV Golf to extract various concessions from the PGA Tour, then boasting about it to a journalist writing a biography on him — is hard to overstate. Even his friends concede that much.

“It’s crazy,” fellow pro Kevin Kisner said. “It’s a pretty big fall. I can’t imagine what he’s gone through mentally and emotionally through that whole year. But a little bit of humble pie never hurts anyone.”

Nearly all of them are asking the same question: How in the hell did we get here?

Mickelson’s absence at the Masters, the tournament he loves more than any other and has won three times, and now the PGA Championship, has left some pros and others wondering if we’ll ever see Lefty on the PGA Tour again.

His longtime agent, Steve Loy of Sportfive, said in a statement last month that Mickelson had requested a release from the PGA Tour to play in LIV’s first event, scheduled for June 9-11 at Centurion Club outside London. Last week, the PGA Tour denied conflicting-event releases for players who had requested them, so Mickelson would have to defy the tour and face potential punishment if he plays in London. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan had threatened players with suspensions and/or lifetime bans if they did so.

Would Mickelson, one of the most popular players of his generation, toss away what is left of his legacy by challenging the PGA Tour’s position for a quick grab of Saudi Arabian money? The LIV Golf Invitational Series is offering the richest purses in history — $25 million for each of its regular-season events.

Resurfacing in London might allow Mickelson, who did not respond to requests to be interviewed for this story, to return outside of intense media glare. PGA Tour pro Charley Hoffman, who grew up with Mickelson in San Diego, told ESPN last week that Mickelson was worried about facing difficult questions from reporters had he chosen to play this week.

“I have the utmost respect for Phil, and I think everything he was trying to do was in the players’ best interest, to be completely honest with you,” Hoffman said. “I think at some point, it might have gotten out of context. I don’t agree with everything he said, obviously.”

Most of the players agree with Hoffman — at least those willing to go on the record with reporters — and feel enough is enough.

“I hope he does come back, and I’m ready for him to come back,” said Harris English, who was part of last year’s U.S. Ryder Cup team, on which Mickelson served as a vice captain. “Golf needs him back. I hope he’s very gracious in his return. I’m sure he’s missed it as well. He’s one of the most competitive guys and loves playing golf tournaments and loves trying to win golf tournaments. I know how much he’s missed playing at the Masters and some of these big-time PGA tournaments. I hope he’s so gracious in his return and kind of learns how quickly you can get this game taken away from you.”

The six-time major winner hasn’t spoken publicly in nearly three months, going “dark” (in the words of several tour pros) after he issued a statement in February saying he regretted some of his words and that he needed some time to “work on the man I want to be.” Mickelson missed the Masters for the first time in 28 years, and beyond liking (and subsequently un-liking) a few tweets that called criticism of him hypocritical, he has given almost no window into his current state of mind.

“I reached out to him,” Simpson said. “He texted me right back. We had a good conversation. I told him I was thinking about him and I was excited for him to get back out here.”

Mickelson has always been something of an iconoclast within the sport, reveling in the opportunity to needle not only the PGA Tour over the course of his career, but also venerable institutions like the USGA, the PGA of America, the media and even his longtime rival Tiger Woods. But winning a major at 50 (eight years after his last win, which came in 2013 at The Open) seemed to only embolden certain aspects of his personality. Mickelson was a late adopter when it came to social media, not joining Twitter or Instagram until 2018. But he quickly embraced the unfiltered nature of Twitter, using it to crack jokes, tell stories, trash-talk friends and rivals, aggressively promote sponsors or companies he’d invested in, and air grievances big and small.

Depending on your perspective, Mickelson’s tweets and comments in the months that followed his victory at Kiawah paint a picture of someone who either was in the midst of a burgeoning midlife crisis, or had come to view himself — and his opinions — — as beyond reproach.

He argued with random users about Jon Rahm‘s vaccination status; he attacked an investigative reporter from the Detroit News for writing an accurate, if unflattering, story about how a mob-connected bookie had refused to pay Mickelson a $500,000 gambling debt; he suggested his excessive coffee-drinking habit had protected him from catching COVID; he attacked the USGA for rule changes limiting the length of drivers to 46 inches; he criticized the PGA Tour policy board’s ban on green-reading books; he claimed that the PGA Tour was holding on to $10-20 billion in “digital moments” that top pros had created; he thanked Elon Musk for grumbling about his $11 billion tax bill; he asked why we couldn’t try achieving herd immunity with the omicron variant; he announced (incorrectly) that he’d won the $8 million first-place prize in the PGA Tour’s Player Impact Program; he claimed he was considering leaving the PGA Tour because of its “obnoxious greed”; he chimed in to agree when Hoffman claimed an unfair ruling at the Waste Management Phoenix Open was an example of why players were considering other tours. All this occurred before the release of his interview with biographer Alan Shipnuck in which Mickelson implied he was playing LIV Golf and the tour against one another.

“They’re scary motherf—ers to get involved with,” Mickelson said to Shipnuck.

“… They killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] 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.”

The fallout was swift and dramatic. One by one, several of golf’s biggest stars distanced themselves from LIV Golf (and Mickelson) and pledged their loyalty to the PGA Tour.

“Obviously, there were some things he said that people didn’t like,” said Hoffman, who said he considers Mickelson a friend. “It is what it is. You can’t take that back. He’s a leader in this game, and unfortunately he stuck his neck out and it got chopped off. Hopefully, he learned from it, and everybody respects him and cheers him on.”

Not every PGA Tour player is as interested in forgiveness as Mickelson’s friends are. Privately, several have let it be known they don’t care if he returns. Rory McIlroy initially called Mickelson’s comments “naive,” “reckless,” “selfish,” “ignorant” and “sad,” before softening his stance a few weeks later and suggesting there was an opportunity for forgiveness — if Mickelson wanted it. But even Mickelson’s potential partners at LIV Golf expressed frustration with the way his comments seemed to come out of nowhere.

“The initial reaction was shock,” said two-time major champion Greg Norman, who is the chief executive officer of LIV Golf Investments. “Because in my conversations with Phil, all the way up to that moment, was so constructive. [Those weren’t] the words or comments he’d said in the past. He was so upbeat about LIV and the opportunity for the game of golf and the franchise opportunity for him and the 11 other franchises. It had never been done before in the game of golf. He got it. He very, very quickly understood our model, and he understood the success factor that our model was projected to have and will have. There wasn’t any inkling the Shipnuck stuff was even talked about or mentioned.”

Mickelson’s loyal fans have forgiven him for mistakes in the past. They barely shrugged in 2015, when a California man was sentenced to prison for money laundering. The man, allegedly acting as a conduit for an offshore gambling operation, laundered approximately $2.75 million of money that belonged to Mickelson, who wasn’t charged in the case. The next year, the Securities and Exchange Commission alleged that Mickelson made $931,000 by purchasing stock on an insider trading tip from sports gambler Billy Walters (Mickelson wasn’t criminally charged but agreed to pay back more than $1 million in “ill-gotten gains”). The federal government alleged that Mickelson used some of the money he made to pay Walters for gambling debts. Mickelson’s fans forgave him again after he intentionally hit a moving ball on the slick 13th green at Shinnecock in the third round of the 2018 U.S. Open.

This time seems different, however, for some fellow competitors and golf fans. This seems to be a hole that even one of golf’s greatest escape artists can’t climb out of. It’s not only that Mickelson so flippantly talked about the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s alleged involvement in the 2018 murder of Khashoggi and its treatment of gay people with Shipnuck, it’s that Mickelson said he was working with the Saudis to gain leverage with the tour. It’s not only that Mickelson was considering playing a rival league, it’s that he and two other unnamed players hired attorneys to draw up the new league’s operating agreement. He wasn’t just flirting with a breakaway league — he was helping build it.

As damaging as the excerpts of Shipnuck’s book were to Mickelson’s reputation — there were additional allegations that he lost more than $40 million gambling from 2010 to 2014 — people close to Mickelson say he’s more concerned about another upcoming book. Walters’ memoir, which is being co-authored by journalist Armen Keteyian, will be released sometime next year. In 2017, Walters was convicted of 10 counts of conspiracy, securities fraud and wire fraud. Federal prosecutors alleged Walters illegally made $40 million while trading Dean Foods stock from 2008 to 2015. He was released from prison in April 2020 and was granted clemency by former U.S. President Donald Trump in January 2021.

In 2018, Walters told ESPN that Mickelson might have helped his defense if he had agreed to testify during his criminal trial.

“Here is a guy [Mickelson] that all he had to do was come forward and tell the truth,” Walters said. “That was all he had to do. The guy wouldn’t do that because he was concerned about his image. He was concerned about his endorsements.”

Now, nearly all of Mickelson’s endorsements have dried up. Longtime sponsors Amstel Light, KPMG and Workday ended their relationships with him. Callaway, which in 2017 signed Mickelson to a contract through the end of his playing career, paused its relationship with him.

If Walters’ book is as explosive as anticipated, the damage might not be over. A source told ESPN, “Billy Walters is not a man to be trifled with.”

Since 1960, only five major champions have not defended their title the following year. Prior to Mickelson, none of them did so willingly. Art Wall missed the 1960 Masters with a kidney ailment and knee injury. Payne Stewart was killed in a plane crash prior to the 2000 U.S. Open. Woods missed the 2008 PGA Championship when he elected to repair a torn ACL. Rory McIlroy missed the 2015 Open Championship recovering from a high ankle sprain he incurred while playing soccer with friends. Mickelson did not issue a statement explaining why he was skipping the PGA Championship; he merely informed the organization he wouldn’t be in the field.

“I think once he addresses the media, if he does, I think everybody will forgive him,” Hoffman said. “I think he’ll use his best judgment and talk his way through it. He’s sorry for what he said, because I know he is, and I think he’ll get nothing but respect and cheers once he gets back out there on the golf course.”

When asked how the past several months might affect Mickelson’s legacy, Justin Thomas gave a succinct answer.

“I think that speaks for itself,” Thomas said.

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