Thirteen months ago, Phil Mickelson settled into a leather chair for a pre-tournament news conference at the Masters. The sun was out, the temperatures were rising, the azaleas were blooming. Mickelson was at ease. Life was good.
“Well,” he began, “I love being back here.”
There was a question about the cuisine at the Champions Dinner.
“I’ll share a little funny story,” he said, a glint in his eye.
It was 2014, the year after Australia’s Adam Scott won and, as defending champion, got to set the menu. Desert was pavlova, a meringue cake topped with fruit and whipped cream.
“I said, ‘Oh, pavlova, that’s inspired by the great Russian ballerina Anna Pavlova who was touring through New Zealand and Australia, and an Australian chef was so inspired by her beautiful movement and tutu … he made a dessert after her.’ Chairman (Billy) Payne looked at me like, what kind of stuff are you spewing here? Zach Johnson looks at me and says, ‘I’ve got $100 that says that’s not right.’ ”
Cell phones aren’t allowed at Augusta National, so no one could quickly Google it.
“So everybody is calling me out on my BS,” Mickelson continued. “And a lot of times, I am BS-ing. However, my daughter was a dancer, and she wrote a biography on Anna Pavlova, and I made 32 pavlovas for her class when she was a little girl, and I knew this. And I ended up, you know, being right, which is not often, but I was right in that particular moment.”
The story reveals a lot about Mickelson.
It tells you he’s a devoted father.
It tells you he likes to be the center of attention, life of the party, smartest guy in the room.
It tells you he likes to gamble.
It tells you he likes BS-ing.
And it tells you he likes to be right, which, by his own admission, is not often.
A month later, Mickelson would win the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island at age 50 and become the oldest man to win a major title, emerging from a crush of fans to triumphantly walk up the 18th fairway, flashing a thumbs up, long shadows creeping across the green but not across his golf game.
A year later, he is out of the sport temporarily, indefinitely, maybe permanently. Most of his sponsors are gone. He hasn’t played in a PGA Tour event since a missed cut at the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in late January. He skipped the Masters. He withdrew from the PGA Championship this week at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Okla.
We know that gambling is addictive. Self-righteousness apparently is, too.
In that carefree, candid interview last year at Augusta, Mickelson recalled his 2013 comments about income taxes that didn’t sit well coming from a guy making upwards of $40 million per year playing golf.
“Years ago I made a statement, tax-wise, California, big mistake, got into politics,” he said when asked how he reconciles some of Augusta National’s past policies deemed discriminatory. “Not going to do it again. I have my beliefs, and I’m going to live my life according to those beliefs. … But I’m not going to get into politics. It never goes well.”
A few months later, he couldn’t help himself. Couldn’t resist.
It didn’t go well.
Mickelson phoned veteran golf writer Alan Shipnuck, who was working on an unauthorized biography of him, and tried to reconcile the millions the Saudi Arabian government was throwing at a rival tour. He admitted it amounted to “sportswashing” to launder the nation’s image after allegedly murdering Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, calling them “scary (expletive) to get involved with … (who) have a horrible human rights record (and) execute people over there for being gay.”
Then he tried to rationalize it: “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.”
Within days, most of his major sponsors — Callaway, Heineken, KPMG, Workday — had canceled or paused their agreements. He was almost unanimously castigated by fellow tour members. He hasn’t played tournament golf since. He’s virtually disappeared from social media and public life.
This week, Shipnuck’s book was released, filled with stories from nearly 200 interviews, some flattering, many less so, sketching a portrait of the six-time major champion that chips away at a corporate image meticulously manicured like Augusta’s fairways. Shipnuck says a government audit found $40 million of gambling losses between 2010 and 2014. Steve Elkington, the 1995 PGA champion, is quoted calling him “the biggest fraud out there — a total phony.”
It could get worse.
Still out there is a forthcoming memoir from Billy Walters, a former Mickelson associate who was sentenced to five years in federal prison in a Wall Street insider trading scheme. Mickelson was involved but promised to invoke the Fifth Amendment and never testified, instead repaying $931,000 in ill-gotten gains from Walters’ stock tips plus $105,000 in interest and fines.
Walters wasn’t amused and isn’t expected to hold back in his book, co-authored by respected sports journalist (and San Diego State alum) Armen Keteyian.
“Here is a guy that all he had to do was come forward and tell the truth,” Walters told ESPN in 2017. “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. My God, in the meantime, a man’s life is on the line.”
Mickelson has extricated himself from tight spots before. He famously hit a 6-iron from the pine straw between two trees at the 13th hole Sunday en route to his 2010 Masters victory. He wiggled out of an insider trading indictment thanks to a favorable Supreme Court ruling in another case that made it harder to prosecute third-party beneficiaries, only for a subsequent ruling two years later to clear the path.
But this feels different. He can’t reach in his bag for a 60-degree wedge and execute one of his trademark flop shots to a short-sided pin.
The Hall of Famer is essentially left with three choices. He can go full hermit, disappear from public view, hole up and start work on a manifesto. He can slink back in shame to the PGA Tour but on its terms, not his (and he’s never been big on contrition). Or he can go rogue, own his “scary (expletive)” comments and gambling indiscretions and political leanings and character flaws, make no apologies, strip away the corporate sheen and just be Phil — for better or worse, right or wrong, love it or leave it.
That’s what John Daly did. The two-time major champion hasn’t played at the Masters since 2006 yet he’s there every April, still relevant, driving his RV from Dardanelle, Ark., and parking it at the Hooters a couple blocks from Magnolia Lane, holding court nightly, selling merch, signing autographs, posing for photos in his Santa Claus beard, singing songs from his country albums, chowing wings, chugging beers, spinning yarns.
Mickelson is a month from his 52nd birthday. He probably wasn’t going to play a regular schedule on the PGA Tour much longer. So why not tee it up in the Saudi-backed tournaments (and risk a PGA Tour ban) if that’s what he wants, play on the senior tour here and there, show up at majors where he has lifetime exemptions, maybe organize his own events? Grow a beard. Let it rip on Twitter. Be who he is instead of trying to be someone he isn’t.
He can draw inspiration from Pavlova, the Russian ballerina. She contracted a severe case of pneumonia at age 49 and was told, the story goes, she needed an operation that might save her life but would prevent her from ever dancing again.
She declined, proclaiming: “If I can’t dance, then I’d rather be dead.”
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