PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Maybe you read the last sentence of Phil Mickelson’s 530-word statement more than once:
“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 are deeply personal and private words. He would seem to be talking about his wife Amy, their three children, his aging parents. The insincere version of that sentence, which we’ve all read a thousand times, is leaving such-and-such “to spend more time with my family.”
But the root issue here is not a private matter. Those words are a public statement written (and overwritten) with a crisis-management counselor. The public crisis, if you can call it that, is Mickelson’s future in professional golf.
I can tell you what people who know the inner workings of the PGA Tour are saying with the cones of silence descending. Need some time away is a preemptive statement from Mickelson, because a suspension from the PGA Tour commissioner is coming, unless Mickelson has suspended himself first. This is a work-in-progress and will be for months, if not years.
On the issue of ban versus suspension, the difference is semantical. A Tour commissioner and a star player have been down this road before, most notably Tim Finchem and Dustin Johnson in 2014. Starting in August of that year, Johnson did not play the Tour for a six-month period, during which he missed a PGA Championship and the 2014 Ryder Cup in Scotland. The Tour claimed it was a voluntary leave. But when the choice is leave or we suspend you, is that much of a choice?
On either basis — suspension or voluntary leave — it would seem unlikely that Mickelson, who won the PGA Championship at age 50 last year, will compete in next month’s Players Championship. The Players is the PGA Tour’s grandest event. Mickelson won at TPC Sawgrass in 2007, on a course that you would never think would suit his unique talent and aggressive style.
This would be a good moment to point out that Mickelson — as a player, showman, charmer, tipper, autograph-signer, gambler, interview subject, dinner companion, social-media star, pontificator and big-boned, new-age coffee-drinking fitness guru — has had a 35-year career in golf, as an elite amateur and professional, that is completely his own.
Mickelson is driven by a restless and active mind, personality and body that always wants more. He is addicted to games and is always playing one, in some manner.
You can’t say you know somebody just like him. No such person exists.
You can’t say you know somebody just like Phil Mickelson. No such person exists.
Regarding a leave or a suspension, Mickelson’s participation in the Masters in April is a complicated question, in part because the tournament is, at its core, an invitational event organized and run by a private club. Augusta National, by tradition, does nothing to put itself at odds with mainstream professional golf. On the other hand, by tradition, former winners of the Masters have an invitation for life. Mickelson has won there three times.
As for the PGA Championship in May, being held at Southern Hills, in Tulsa, it is run by the PGA of America. Until recently, there was discussion, in the halls of the PGA of America, of giving Mickelson two shots as the U.S. Ryder Cup captain, for a road game and a home game, followed by two captaincies by Tiger Woods. If you’re a betting person, Woods would, right now, look like he’ll be a captain before Mickelson. But golf’s funny and life is unpredictable, too. That’s why the bookies, over time, always win.
Accusing the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” and misstating some of its financial numbers, as Mickelson did in a Golf Digest interview at the Saudi International golf tournament earlier this month, could certainly get a player fined, but not suspended. In that interview, Mickelson discussed his interest in a new world golf tour that would compete with the PGA Tour for player participation, fan participation (especially in gambling) and broadcast participation.
That planned global tour would be different to the PGA Tour in look and feel. It would comprise a series of small-field, 54-hole team events with massive purses and guaranteed contracts for the players. The tour would be financed by an immense Saudi investment fund and run by Greg Norman.
Recruiting players to, and having a remunerative leadership role in, a golf tour that would compete with the PGA Tour would violate PGA Tour bylaws and subject a player to suspension, if not a permanent ban. Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner who works on behalf of the Tour and its players, has said more than once in recent weeks that any player who joins a breakaway tour will be banned from the Tour. Different contract lawyers have expressed a range of opinions about how enforceable such an action would be. The issue would almost surely be contested in federal courts.
There is more weirdness going on here than most golf fans can keep track of. Steve Loy, Mickelson’s longtime agent and manager, and former college coach, has been advising Mickelson for months not to get in bed with the Saudi golf league, but Mickelson, by personality type, does pretty much what he wants to do. Tiger Woods, by the way, is exactly the same. Arnold Palmer was not. He was headstrong as a player but leaned deeply on his different advisors throughout his career.
One of Mickelson’s main sponsors, KPMG, has cut ties to Mickelson and another of his sponsors, Workday, is expected to announce that it is not renewing his contract at the end of the March. Those two contracts are said to be worth well over $10 million a year to Mickelson.
If the Saudi-backed world golf league gets off the ground, each team is expected to have its own player-owner and each team would have its own sponsor. There is a significant list of prominent PGA Tour players, including Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas, who have expressed their allegiance to the PGA Tour. Jon Rahm, too, though he used a word no other player did: “fealty.” He is represented by an agency called SportFive. Loy is the president of its golf division.
There’s a saying in golf that if you’re working in golf and don’t have a conflict of interest, you’re not working in golf. Yes, it’s a koan. (Paradoxical Zen riddle.)
Here’s some more oddness. This year’s PGA Championship was supposed to be held at Donald Trump’s course in Bedminster, N.J., but the PGA of America changed the venue in the aftermath of the deadly rioting in the Capitol Building on Jan. 6, 2021. As the Saudi golf league, working under the name LIV Golf Investments, looks for U.S. courses to host tournaments, several Trump courses are being considered, including the Bedminster course and Trump Doral.
Representatives for LIV Golf have approached various American private clubs, offering to essentially rent courses for a one-week period for sums over $3 million, a portion of which is to go to the charity of the club’s choice. To date, no club has announced its intention to be the venue for such a tournament. It should also be noted that the league has never made an official announcement that it actually exists, that Norman is its commissioner, that certain players have been signed to play for it.
This is a really weird period in world golf, where much less is known than unknown. Woods had a devastating car crash one year ago that altered his life forever. He has said virtually nothing about it, claiming that all the answers are in the investigation reports. The investigation notes that Woods had the gas pedal virtually completely depressed at the time of the crash. Woods has never been one to make his private life public.
In that regard, and in many others, Mickelson has been the anti-Woods. But if you look at the public side of his timeline over the past nine months, it’s hard to understand where he is right now. It’s been a remarkable run.
Last May, on the Sunday at the PGA Championship, he became, at 50, the oldest golfer ever to win a grand slam event. He looked fit and focused and his golf was sensational.
His golf was decidedly unspectacular in the summer of ’21, but did it matter? It did not. Mickelson had cemented his reputation as one of the all-time greats.
In September, Mickelson was the life of the party at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, where he was an assistant U.S. captain, advising players, walking hand-in-hand with his wife, huddling with the U.S. captain, Steve Stricker.
In October, he won Jim Furyk’s event on the Champions tour.
In November, he won Charles Schwab’s season-ending event on the Champions tour, a win that came with a $440,000 first-place check.
Earlier this month, in matching white shirts, Mickelson and Norman were flashing their famous smiles at a beach in Saudi Arabia. They looked like the picture of health and happiness, to say nothing of ambition and promise.
Then came Tuesday’s 530-word statement. Phil Mickelson, in retreat. Who saw that coming?
Michael Bamberger may be reached at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com