Phil Mickelson’s tumultuous week capped by ‘gut punch’ at LIV event
At the LIV event in New Jersey last week, Phil Mickelson didn’t say how he was feeling about the forthcoming book from his former gambling partner Billy Walters in which Walters alleges that Mickelson, who built his brand around risk-taking, incurred a nine-figure sports-gambling debt and tried to bet 400 large on a U.S. win at the 2012 Ryder Cup.
Mickelson’s gambling problem is not revelatory; in a 2022 interview with Sports Illustrated, the six-time major winner acknowledged his “reckless” addiction and said that he had addressed it with “hundreds of hours of therapy.” But the notion that Mickelson had endeavored to bet on an event in which he was competing was news. Mickelson didn’t deny the allegation. On Thursday, he tweeted that he did not bet on the matches but did not say whether he had attempted to do so.
Mickelson and his peppy partner, Keegan Bradley, were the stars of the U.S. team that week at Medinah Country Club, near Chicago. On Friday, the first day of the matches, they knocked off Luke Donald and Sergio Garcia, 4 and 3, in morning foursomes before taking down Rory McIlroy and Graeme McDowell, 2 and 1, in the afternoon fourball session. In the first session on Saturday, they kicked into full-buzzsaw mode, obliterating Lee Westwood and Luke Donald, 7 and 6. No U.S. duo was hotter or more effective at galvanizing the American crowds. It seemed a given that U.S. captain Davis Love III would send Mickelson and Bradley back out for one more session Saturday afternoon, but when the fourball pairings were announced there was no sign of them.
Mickelson didn’t speak to the press after the morning session, but Bradley did. “I would much rather sit and have a guy who didn’t play go play because I want everyone to be ready for singles,” Bradley said. “You know, I’m putting so much emotion into my rounds that it’s probably a good thing that I’ll be rested up for tomorrow’s singles.”
With Mickelson and Bradley on the bench, the U.S. and Europe split the afternoon session, but the U.S. still had a commanding 10-6 lead heading into singles.
According to Walters, Mickelson felt “supremely confident” that the U.S. would win at Medinah, so much so that at some point that week — Walters didn’t say when — Mickelson called Walters to place a $400,000 bet on a U.S. triumph. Walters was gobsmacked. From the book:
I could not believe what I was hearing.
“Have you lost your f—ing mind?” I told him. “Don’t you remember what happened to Pete Rose?” The former Cincinnati Reds manager was banned from baseball for betting on his own team. “You’re seen as a modern-day Arnold Palmer,” I added. “You’d risk all that for this? I want no part of it.’’
“Alright, alright,” he replied.
I have no idea whether Phil placed the bet elsewhere. Hopefully, he came to his senses…
That’s because on Sunday things did not go well for Mickelson and his compatriots. The Europeans won the first five singles matches — including Justin Rose’s 1-up victory over Mickelson — and went on the take the Cup, 13.5-12.5. The Americans — and the golf world at large — were stunned.
But back to Mickelson and his alleged wager. Perhaps you’re thinking, what’s the big deal? Even if he did have action on the matches, wouldn’t that provide him extra motivation to play well? Yes, maybe. But having that additional pressure on his shoulders could also hinder his game or cloud his match-play strategy, or drive Mickelson to try and influence Love’s tactics (i.e., by asking to sit or play) in ways that he otherwise wouldn’t. It’s impossible to know, which is why golfers as well as athletes in virtually every other sport are prohibited from betting on themselves and their teams.
When asked if Walters’ account was the first time the PGA of America had been made aware of the betting allegation, a PGA of America spokesperson provided this statement: “We aren’t going to comment or speculate on rumors about an event that took place 11 years ago.”
The PGA Tour also declined to comment when asked if the Tour had ever been made aware of similar allegations about Mickelson betting or trying to bet on Tour events.
If Mickelson was rattled by Walters’ exposé, it wasn’t obvious in his play through the first two rounds of the LIV event at Trump Bedminster last week. He opened with a one-under 71 then posted a four-under 67 to climb within four of Cameron Smith’s lead with 18 holes to play. After the second round, Mickelson praised the “loud and supportive” New York-New Jersey crowds and said, “I haven’t won since the PGA in ’21, so it’s been a couple years, and I would love getting back into that feeling of having a chance to win and having each shot bring that pressure about. … That’s why we still want to play or I still want to play because I love that challenge of trying to compete and trying to do that, and I still get nervous every time I have a chance.”
Mickelson was asked eight questions in that press conference, none of which related to Walters’ allegations.
On Sunday, two early birdies from Mickelson cut Smith’s lead to two and Mickelson was firmly in contention for his first LIV title.
But then came the 7th hole, a par-3 of 191 yards where a pond guards the front and right side of the green. According to the Bedminster yardage book, “The smartest and optimal strategy is to play for the front left portion of the green.” Mickelson tugged his first swing right. Splash. Then, electing to forego what would have been a challenging drop, he reloaded from the tee. Another gurgle. Mickelson re-teed again. This time he found terra firma but spun his ball off the green. A chip and two putts later, he had made a quintuple-bogey 8.
“I don’t know what happened whether it was setup or something,” he told reporters after the round. “That was kind of a gut punch, because I felt like I was playing well and had a chance to make a move. I thought I could get at that pin.”
Mickelson signed for a four-over 75 to finish the week at one under and tied for ninth. Had he parred the 7th, he would have finished solo second.
But that’s golf. Sometimes gambles pay off, other times not so much.