Phil Mickelson drama creates awkwardness for PGA Championship broadcasts
Next week, CBS and ESPN will cover more than 250 hours of live coverage from the PGA Championship at Southern Hills. But the bigger question — the one hanging over the heads of the several hundred people from both networks involved in beaming the event to golf audiences across the world — is whether Phil Mickelson‘s name will surface.
It would seem unfathomable for Mickelson, the six-time major-winner and conversational lightning-rod, to find himself left out of the discussion at the very event he so improbably won just 12 months ago. It was just two years ago at the PGA that Mickelson himself was invited into the CBS booth as a guest commentator.
For the better or worse over the last quarter-century, Mickelson has been a staple of major weeks. Before this spring, he had missed only two majors since the mid-90s (the 2009 Open Championship and 2017 U.S. Open), both absences coming due to family conflicts.
But then came 2022, and Mickelson’s now-infamous comments to Alan Shipnuck about the growing Saudi influence in professional golf. Phil stepped away from golf in the blowback from the story, and has not competed since.
In April, Mickelson withdrew from the Masters for the first time in his professional career. Subsequently, he was persona non grata on CBS and ESPN’s broadcasts from that event — his place in the arc of the tournament’s history forgotten for the overwhelming majority of television coverage during tournament week. In press conferences leading up to the tournament, broadcasters and network executives declined comment about Mickelson.
Today, the discourse around Mickelson has grown more nuanced. At the PGA Championship, whispers about LIV Golf have turned into full-throated discussions. Mickelson isn’t the only pro entertaining the idea of changing flags — Rickie Fowler was among those at Southern Hills willing to admit he’s at least considering the merits of making the jump to a rival league. Officially, Mickelson won’t be at the PGA Championship, but he’ll certainly be part of the conversation among those on the ground.
The same can’t be said for the networks. At least not yet. In calls leading up to Southern Hills, employees from both ESPN and CBS seemed reticent to discuss Phil, even when asked directly about him.
It’s an odd dichotomy for the reigning winner of one of golf’s major championships to face: simultaneously the story of the tournament, but perhaps not relevant enough to wind up on the television broadcast of it. A paradox distilled perfectly by Jim Nantz, who, on a pre-PGA conference call with reporters, waffled on his own no-comment about Mickelson within 20 minutes of making it.
“You know what? I’m going to keep that private,” Nantz said originally. “I’ve actually communicated with him, and I don’t feel like that’s something that is something that I’m sharing with everyone else. So I’ll leave it at that.”
And then, minutes later:
“He’ll be back,” Nantz said. “He’s got a ton of fans out there. This is a forgiving nation. And there’s a million examples of people that have been able to somehow find their way back to being on top again and I fully expect he will.”
Of course, Nantz isn’t the only person making decisions as to who (and what) is discussed on the air at the PGA. Two networks, two production teams and two sets of broadcasters will face that decision independently. There are also other factors to consider. One is the sponsors and rightsholders who may very well have opinions about Mickelson’s inclusion in event coverage. Another is a cold reality of golf television: It’s hard to find time for players who aren’t there, yes, even defending champions.
“Phil’s situation is a storyline if he plays, and he will have provided us with the context with a press conference at some point prior to,” said ESPN broadcaster Scott Van Pelt. “If he doesn’t play, then I don’t know how much conversation there will be other than he’s not playing. He continues to be away from the game, and certainly that’s something that would — I’m sure would be mentioned over the course of time. But I think the golf would be the central storyline of our coverage because that’s what we’re there to cover is the 2022 PGA Championship.”
Some would call that dissonance. Others, like Nantz, would call it something else.
“Sometimes we get caught up in the cyclone of a story. We think it’s forever,” Nantz said. “It won’t be forever. He’ll be back.”
But will he return to CBS’s airwaves before then? We’ll find out soon enough.