For all Phil Mickelson’s derring-do on the golf course — corner-cutting bombs, pine-splitting approaches, flop shots that descended with nose bleeds — he has delivered some of his most captivating performances in front of a microphone or, more recently, on his phone’s keypad.
Where to begin? With his 2004 dismantling of losing U.S. Ryder Cup captain Hal Sutton (“we failed monumentally”)? With his 2013 dig at the California tax code (“it doesn’t work for me”)? With his 2014 takedown of losing U.S. Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson (“we have strayed from a winning formula”)? With his 2021 shot at the USGA for regulating driver shaft length (“stupid is as stupid does”)?
Oh, and let us not forget this chestnut, in the run-up to the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach: “I’ve played, what, 29 U.S. Opens?” Mickelson said, reflecting on the setups at those events. “One hundred percent of time they have messed it up if it doesn’t rain.”
You didn’t have to like Mickelson’s opinions — many never did — but in the buttoned-up world of professional golf you couldn’t help but respect his propensity for spilling them. At the least, it made the game more fun and more interesting. More often than not, Mickelson gave fans something to buzz about and reporters something to write about. He couldn’t help himself. Opining, musing, pontificating, jousting, antagonizing — all were in his DNA.
We’re employing the past tense here, because if you’ve listened to Mickelson in his last two press conferences — first at LIV Golf’s debut event, near London, last week, and second at his Monday session with reporters at the U.S. Open this week — you’ve surely detected a marked change in the man, and not just because he’s bearded, hatless and sponsor-less. Gone is the pep, the bluster, the mischievous glint in his eyes. He’s somber, subdued and, above all, cautious.
Since returning from his exile, following the publication of his controversial remarks about the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league, Mickelson has been reluctant to talk about, well, much of anything. Words come out of his mouth, but they’re devoid of any real substance. That’s by design, of course. Running his mouth is what landed Mickelson in this strange purgatory in the first place.
“I have had strong opinions and ideas, let’s say, regarding most of the governing bodies, and I’ve done a poor job of conveying that,” Mickelson said Monday, echoing similar remarks he made last week. “I’ve made it public, and that’s been a mistake. That’s one of the mistakes I’ve been making.” Moving forward, he added, he’s aiming to “be a lot more thoughtful with my words and actions and try to keep a lot of those things behind closed doors.”
Mickelson began his press conference at The Country Club with an opening statement, as if he were a defendant on trial, which in a way he was. He said that the last four months have been “necessary time” to reflect on his missteps. He thanked the Tour for “the many opportunities it has provided me.” He said how excited he was to be back at the historic Country Club. Looking out a tent with reporters jammed shoulder to shoulder, Mickelson concluded with, “Any questions?”
LOL, yeah, Phil, just a few.
Mickelson answered 30 questions Monday, exactly one of which was about the U.S. Open. Many of the other 29 queries made Mickelson visibly uncomfortable and/or agitated. How would he explain his Saudi business partnership to the families of 9/11 victims? What kind of response is he expecting from fans and peers who feel he has betrayed them? Does he feel like he needs to apologize for joining LIV? No one seemed interested in the thickness of the rough.
Mickelson played prevent defense, replying with some combination of half- and non-answers. One question he felt was better suited for LIV executives, another for the USGA. On several occasions, he admonished reporters for asking two-part questions. ”I don’t like it when you keep asking multiple questions,” he said. When asked if perhaps he’s been unfairly criticized, Mickelson said, “That’s not necessarily for me to say.”
He wasn’t on LIV turf anymore, but the media training he had received in London last week was clearly still top of mind.
Mickelson used the word respect 15 times, as in: “I certainly respect Rory. I respect his ideas. I respect all the players that choose to stay on the PGA Tour.” He also leaned on appreciative and appreciation, employing them twice each. Useful words all when you’re trying to mend bridges.
Give Mickelson credit for admitting LIV’s “incredible financial commitment” was one of the carrots that drew him to the new league; not all LIV players have spoken that truth so plainly. He also did assert one new opinion, when asked why he wants to continue to have the right to play on the PGA Tour.
“I’ve worked hard to earn a lifetime membership,” Mickelson said. “I’ve worked hard to give back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf throughout my 30 plus years of professional golf, and I’ve earned that lifetime membership, so I believe that it should be my choice.”
We haven’t seen the last of Mickelson in non-LIV press tents; he will continue to play in the majors — at least as long as he’s permitted to — and, who knows, maybe contend in a couple more. It’s not inconceivable that Mickelson could conjure his green jacket-winning magic one final time, hitting bombs above the pines and one-hop-and-stopping wedges into Augusta’s slippery greens.
Of course seeing the Mickelson of old and hearing from him are two very different things.