Phil Mickelson embraced at LIV event in wake of gambling allegations
BEDMINSTER, N.J. — It would have been the elephant in the room, were the elephant not Phil Mickelson and the room not the LIV event at Trump Bedminster.
But as Secret Service trucks patrolled the property on a sweaty Friday afternoon, Mickelson’s latest round of controversy appeared not to be a source of angst or even awkwardness for most of the few thousand in attendance. No, the allegations that Mickelson had gambled more than $1 billion and lost more than $100 million in the throes of a corrosive addiction was instead fodder for light-hearted quips — not only by those in the gallery but also by Mickelson himself.
On his walk to the 9th tee box on Friday, the six-time major champion chuckled. This was shortly after a fan had proposed a $1,000 wager on the result of the ensuing hole.
“I would, but I’m not a gambling man,” Mickelson said through a grin.
Fans laughed, and for a moment so did Mickelson.
But the laughter belied a more sobering reality, because Mickelson, of course, is — or was — a gambling man.
And a prolific one at that, according to an excerpt from old friend and legendary bettor Billy Walters’ forthcoming book, Gambler, which was published by Golf Digest Thursday. Mickelson has already acknowledged his gambling addiction, but Walters’ account provides more color as to the scope of Mickelson’s habit. Walters alleges that Mickelson wagered upward of nine $110,000 bets a day, and on one occasion placed 43 bets on Major League Baseball games in the same day. More troubling still, Walters claims to have fielded a request from Mickelson to place a $400,000 bet on the 2012 Ryder Cup, at which Mickelson competed on the U.S. team.
Walters says he refused to take the action, and Mickelson says he never placed the bet — but the mere allegation that Mickelson intended to wager on an event in which he was playing calls to mind another sports legend with a taste for making things interesting: Pete Rose.
Rose was the most prolific hitter in baseball history when he was unceremoniously banned from the sport on evidence that he bet on games while playing for and managing the Cincinnati Reds. In a statement announcing Rose’s lifetime ban, then-MLB commissioner Bart Giamatti spoke unequivocally about the seriousness of those allegations and what they meant for the sport writ large.
“I believe baseball is an important, enduring American institution,” Giamatti wrote. “It must assert and aspire to the highest principles — of integrity, of professionalism of performance, of fair play within its rules.”
The institution of golf aspires to those same ideals. Ask Mickelson, who, in his Thursday statement in which he said he did not bet on the Ryder Cup, added, “While it is well known that I always enjoy a friendly wager on the course, I would never undermine the integrity of the game.”
But this is where things get tricky, because Mickelson’s relationship with gambling is more nuanced than Rose’s. Betting is in the fabric of golf — at least at the recreational level — and also has been a revered part of Mickelson’s public persona. Over the years, stories of his wagers have become golf lore, if not been flat-out lauded. Just days ago, Mickelson’s pre-match bookmaking was the subject of a viral video with fellow LIV pro Bryson DeChambeau.
Also softening the alarm around Mickelson’s hefty wagers is that sports gambling has been exploding in the United States, the benefit of recent legislation in a host of states. Behavior that was once reserved for buddies’ trips to Vegas and off-shore websites has now been downloaded directly into the pockets of sports fans, including those of the PGA Tour. The business of betting is far more accepted behavior than it was in Rose’s heyday.
In his statement, Mickelson noted that he has received treatment for a gambling addiction, and that the treatment has “positively impacted” his life. But to at least some fans, Phil will always be Phil, and to remove Phil from gambling would be to remove Phil from Phil.
At Bedminster on Friday, the crowd and Mickelson chuckled their way through the afternoon, their playful barbs a reminder that even a day after the latest Mickelson controversy, some shades of Phil will always be green.
“PHIL! A thousand says you make this putt!” screamed an over-served college-aged fan in a pastel pink hat.
“PHIL! I bet everything on the HyFlyers!” offered another onlooker with a HyFlyers logo tattooed on his thigh under a bible verse.
A third fan, pointing to his two young daughters clad in jet-black HyFlyers capes, hollered, “PHIL! Win us some money!”
The love Mickelson feels from the LIV contingent isn’t universal, of course. On the PGA Tour, he remains golfer non grata for his disloyalty, and after Thursday’s news some of his old Tour pals weighed in.
“I mean, I would say some people were surprised by the amount of…” Jordan Spieth said, his voice trailing off before he completed the thought.
Rory McIlroy was more cutting: “At least he can bet on the Ryder Cup this year, because he won’t be part of it.”
These are the consequences of life as Phil, who on Friday, as he did a day earlier, declined to speak to media. The same will likely be the case through the weekend, and, who knows, perhaps for the next month-plus. The next LIV event isn’t until Sept. 22-24, in Chicago.
On Friday, the crowds spoke for Mickelson, and several fans weren’t shy about voicing how they perceived the allegations lobbed against him.
The loudest of those messages came on the 17th green, where Mickelson faced a testy par try in the early evening. It had been a shaky few holes — quintessentially topsy-turvy — but after a stubbed approach from the left rough, Mickelson stared down a 10-footer, needing it to keep a bogey-free back nine going.
When Mickelson poured in the putt, the crowd erupted. As Mickelson walked away from the hole, a fan seated in the grandstand stepped forward.
“THE GAMBLER!!!” he bellowed.
Mickelson didn’t face the man.
He just smiled.