Tour Confidential: Why isn’t Phil in the PGA — and how will Tiger play?
Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors as they break down the hottest topics in the sport, and join the conversation by tweeting us @golf_com. This week, we discuss Phil Mickelson’s absence from the PGA, Tiger Woods’ presence, brutal golf punishments and much more.
1. Last year, at the age of 50, Phil Mickelson became the oldest ever to win a major championship with his victory at the PGA Championship. This year, he’s out. On Friday, the PGA of America distributed a short release saying Mickelson had withdrawn from this week’s event at Southern Hills, in Tulsa, Okla., and his now three-month exile continues following his apology for comments on the Saudi-backed LIV tour. Two questions: What do you think is most preventing Lefty from returning, and when do you think we’ll see him again in competition?
Sean Zak, senior editor (@sean_zak): There are probably only a handful of people on earth who know. Phil, his wife, Amy, his brother and caddie Tim, his agent Steve Loy. He could be out of form and afraid to embarrass himself further by showing up and flaming out. He could be eager to avoid discussing so many things publicly during a major championship. There could be something behind the scenes we don’t know about! The main takeaway is that the first LIV Golf event somehow feels more likely now to be his return spot.
Josh Sens, senior writer (@joshsens): I doubt his game is in great form, but I also doubt that has much to do with him not playing. He’s too proud a competitor to let that stop him from trying to defend. If you believe reports of how seriously he hurt himself gambling, and you think about where he is in his career, then it’s not a big mental leap to think that he sees LIV as where his bread will be buttered. I agree with Sean that we’ll see him next in London, at the inaugural LIV event. And I suspect that until then, he will follow the time-worn PR crisis management strategy of laying low.
James Colgan, assistant editor (@jamescolgan26): With LIV Golf likely to announce next week, Phil could’ve found himself the face of golf’s new, fairly unpopular rival league on a week he’s hoping to win back the public’s good graces. It would be a bad look for a guy hoping to recover from a few months full of them. Don’t think that’s the only reason, but it had to have been one of them.
Dylan Dethier, senior writer (@dylan_dethier): Simply put, I don’t think he was ready for all of it. For questions, for scrutiny, for the spotlight. He’s been playing golf around the San Diego area the last couple weeks and hasn’t looked particularly sharp, nor has he looked fresh. But is his golf game keeping him out or is it his biography release, his comments, his LIV commitment, his moments of self-refection, his personal life? Re-read Mickelson’s statement about his absence and I think you’ll get the sense that this is a combination of factors. I think that’s still true.
2. On to that other guy… Tiger Woods. All signs point to the 15-time major champion playing at Southern Hills, the latest confirmation coming Friday when the PGA of America announced that he would be holding a pre-tournament press conference on Tuesday (not to mention Woods’ arrival in Tulsa for a practice round on Sunday). Let’s set the line at top 30 — does Woods finish above or below that mark and why?
Zak: Below. A lot of people want to point to his made cut at the Masters as a sign he can do that everywhere. This isn’t Augusta National. This isn’t the weaker (by comparison) Masters field. This is the PGA Championship, where a couple PGA Professionals have as good a chance of making the cut as Woods does. Bottom line: Four rounds walking and playing a course that is set up to beat you down will … beat you down. I’d guess Woods MCs by a couple and starts prepping for St. Andrews.
Sens: Tiger has won here. And the subtleties of the design–and the demands of the greens–are right up his alley. But Southern HIlls is not an easy walk, and it’s going to be hot. We saw the physical toll start to wear on him at Augusta. And I suspect we’ll see it here. I think he’ll make the cut, and then fade over the weekend against a loaded field. In short, I’m betting he finishes below 30th. But I’m not betting the house.
Colgan: It does feel like we’re at a bit of an inflection point for Tiger. Either he’s going to show up at Southern Hills and play well, proving he’s a legit threat to contend in majors heading forward. Or he’s going to show up and take a step back, proving that his chances of contending at anywhere other than Augusta are still slim. I’m guessing it’ll be the former, with a finish somewhere in the mid-50s.
Dethier: As the resident Tiger optimist I am delighted to tell you that Woods is destined for a top-20 finish. He’s hitting it well, his short game should be creative and sharp enough to excel around Southern Hills’ greens, Augusta is a tougher walk than anything in the state of Oklahoma and hot weather will actually mean good things for getting his body loose. He’s better than the skeptics above might remember!
3. *Excluding* Tiger and Phil and the Saudi tour (more on that in a moment), what’s the storyline you’re most intrigued to see play out this week?
Zak: In-form Jordan Spieth going for the career Grand Slam is the next biggest story because it has to be. Not because it’s super likely to happen, but because of how rarified the air really is at that point. Spieth would be just the sixth to ever do it.
Sens: Sean is right. Next up, I’m keen to watch the only man who still has a chance at the Grand Slam this year. Can Scheffler make it two majors in a row?
Colgan: Rory! A month ago every talking head in golf was screaming about a major breakthrough at the Masters. Now it’s a week before the PGA and his name hasn’t been heard since. Was it real, or just smoke and mirrors? That’s what I’m excited to see in Tulsa.
Dethier: Southern Hills itself! Architecture nerds have been crowing about Gil Hanse’s work on Southern Hills and the array of creative shots we’ll see around the greens in particular. I hope that will come through in the viewing.
4. On Tuesday, the PGA Tour denied its members waivers to play in the Saudi-backed LIV International Series’ first event, in early June in London, an announcement that was quickly followed by Greg Norman, LIV’s CEO, calling the Tour an “illegal monopoly” as well as “anti-golfer, anti-fan, and anti-competitive,” escalating the rhetoric and taking shots at the Tour’s mission and non-profit status. How much of a blow to LIV is the Tour’s waiver blocker?
Zak: It’s a huge blow, if only because it felt like the Tour might turn a blind eye to this event, since it’s taking place in Europe. The Tour did the exact opposite, and essentially declared war on LIV Golf in as serious a way as they can right now. But it sounds like it’s not going to change the minds of a number of pros already committed.
Sens: This was going to happen at some point anyway; it just happened a bit sooner than expected. I’m not sure how much it changes LIV’s long-term prospects. This was coming. Did this particular move by the Tour change the mind of any big names who were fence-sitting? Seems unlikely. I think the more telling moment will come when the Tour determines what type of sanctions it will place on those who decide to play anyway. Which I suspect will be most of them who applied for waivers.
Colgan: Here’s the bottom line: the PGA Tour is going to fight this to the ends of the earth. Securing and maintaining talent will require a massive effort from LIV Golf. Even then, it might not work. So no, this effort shouldn’t have been a blow to LIV. They should have been expecting it. But hopefully they’re also realistic enough to know the enemy they’re up against.
Dethier: In this case I think both sides got what they wanted. By denying waivers, Jay Monahan finally got the chance to put his money where his mouth was. And LIV appears to be eager for a legal battle; this will get them there more quickly.
5. Norman, also last week, vowed that LIV’s mission/vision is a long-term one. Five years from now, how do you see the state of the rival tour?
Zak: I see it existing … in the history books. And in particular the history books of sports law. I think life on Tour is too good for enough pros to want to risk being banned, shadow-banned, or whatever may come of members who play LIV events. And without enough excitement from players, the next move from LIV would be an antitrust lawsuit.
Sens: I see it existing in real life, not just on the page. There’s bottomless money behind it. Or at least, plenty to keep it going for five years. Will it be drawing the Jordan Spieths and Rory McIlroys and Scottie Schefflers of the world? Doubt it.
Colgan: The guy with all the money rarely loses, and LIV Golf has all the money. That’s what makes this so difficult to predict. That said, the missteps have been too frequent, the problems too fundamental, and — most importantly — the professional interest too little for me to feel confident the league will exist in half a decade.
Dethier: Yikes. I have no earthly idea. But I don’t think the Saudis are bowing out of professional golf very quickly, and if Norman’s claims of an additional $2 billion investment are true, well, it’s tough to vaporize that kind of cash that fast, right?
6. Let’s end things on a lighter note. Our Alan Bastable chronicled how a golfer in Kansas City was made to play a U.S. Open local qualifier — for finishing last in his fantasy football league. The “18 to 20” handicap then signed for a 40-over 112. What’s the most unusual golf-based “punishment” you’ve heard of (or endured!) for losing a wager?
Zak: A friend once had to fly across the country to caddie for the champion of his fantasy football league because he finished in last place. Love that idea.
Sens: Pretty much all the punishment bets I know of are of the depressingly unimaginative ‘drop your pant or carry my bag variety.’ A friend did once lose a wager that called for him to walk the back-nine backwards, which is a lot of more difficult and dizzying than you might think.
Colgan: I once lost a caddie yard wager and had to carry a leather, custom-made Yankees Tour bag for the 15-handicap who owned it. Still one of the worst days of my looping life.
Dethier: A friend of mine lost his fantasy league and had to go Full Rickie for their next round. Flatbrim. Bright orange. Full kit. I liked that one.