Once, Phil Mickelson seemed to be a lock to someday become an honorary starter at the Masters (circa 2040) and, much more immediately, a Ryder Cup captain. Now, it’s harder to say.
Mickelson is at a crossroads. He can continue down the path he is on, aligning himself with an upstart golf league financed by the Saudi ruling class, about which nothing has been said publicly.
That’s not easy to do, when you’ve called the mouth that seeks to feed you “scary mother****ers.” And when you don’t know if the league is even going to be up and running.
Or Mickelson could drop his link to Greg Norman’s LIV Golf Investments and its Saudi backers and the world golf tour it envisions, and try to resume his big life on the PGA Tour, the Champions tour (where it’s hard to have a big life) and as a living legend of the game. It was only nine months ago that Mickelson became the oldest golfer to win a major championship!
But retreating is not Mickelson’s style, his legal entanglements with LIV Golf are possibly far more involved than we could know, and he has already scorched the earth — the majors, the PGA Tour, corporate America — where he plied his trade for so long, and so effectively.
His mouth and his ambition, to say nothing of his talent and his work ethic, got him to where he was in May, when he won the PGA at Kiawah, in coastal South Carolina, and was swarmed by fans as he marched to the 18th green.
His mouth and his ambition got him to where he is right now. Mickelson, who can be loaded with charm, who has all the best words, who has been engaging with fans and reporters and golf’s corporate sponsors for decades, is a restless personality. In the history of golf, you can’t think of another person like him. It’s not really that surprising to see him in the spot he is in.
And if anybody has the skillset to turn this around, it’s Mickelson.
Time is not on his side. Next month, he would surely want to play in the Players Championship. In April the Masters. In May the PGA.
Golf already has one global superstar who leads an essentially isolated, quiet private life: Tiger Woods. Mickelson has always been the anti-Woods. But right now, Woods — with his temperate, well-considered remarks about his allegiance to the world that made him — looks like golf’s elder statesman. Those comments came in December, at a tournament Woods hosts in the Bahamas, and last week at Riviera, at the Genesis Invitational, another Tiger Woods production.
Mickelson has been down this road before, sort of, most notably after the 2014 Ryder Cup, when the Americans lost in Scotland and Mickelson excoriated his captain, Tom Watson. But that whole thing was narrow, compared to this.
Could Mickelson be eased out of his position as the tournament host of the American Express, the early-season PGA Tour event in the California desert? He could.
Will Mickelson ever become what he deserves to be, a revered elder statesman in the game? It’s really up to him.
The comments he made in November to Alan Shipnuck, who is writing a biography of Mickelson due out in May, had the advantage of being true. A true expression of what Mickelson feels. They exploded because the man who accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” revealed his own insatiable appetite. That appetite isn’t going anywhere. It’s a central part of his character. He’s not capable of taking a child’s portion.
Do you think it’s an ordinary person who has been able to achieve what he has achieved in his life? For 30 years, he has been one of the best players in golf history. There has never been a career like his, with the possible exception of Sam Snead’s.
They exploded because the man who accused the PGA Tour of ‘obnoxious greed’ revealed his own insatiable appetite.
He has not hurt anybody here, except himself. There is no crime. But he misread the landscape and now he’s like the guy at the bottom of the pit in one of the ads Mickelson did for Workday in the last year or two.
“Hello down there,” Mickelson says to the guy at the bottom of a sandpit. “You need help?”
Yeah, the guy says.
“Call Workday,” Mickelson says.
That wasn’t going to work for the guy in the pit, and Workday isn’t going to help Mickelson here. He’s on his own, naked to the golf world.
But Mickelson can do what golfers do. Be inventive, even with all the many restraints the game puts on you. Figure something out. Mickelson has been doing that all his life.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Michael.Bamberger@Golf.com