Tour Confidential: Will There Be Fallout for Phil Mickelson?

May 23, 2016

Every Sunday night, conducts an e-mail roundtable with writers from Sports Illustrated and Golf Magazine. Check in every week for the unfiltered opinions of our writers and editors and join the conversation in the comments section below.

1. Phil Mickelson has agreed to return more than a million dollars that he earned off “ill-gotten [trading] gains as a result of others’ illegal acts,” according to a lawsuit filed by the SEC last week. Mickelson was not charged with any wrongdoing, but the suit does allege that Mickelson used his profits from the purchase of Dean Foods stock to pay off gambling debts to noted sports gambler Billy Walters, from whom Mickelson received a tip to buy the stock. Will golf fans accept this episode as just another case of Phil being Phil, or did Mickelson–assuming the allegations are true–cross a line that could tarnish both his brand and his appeal?

Gary Van Sickle, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@GaryVanSickle): Phil fans aren’t going to care. This is more or less a victimless crime. Phil made money for himself but didn’t hurt others, unlike the Wall Street bankers who never went to jail. There’s a fine line between insider trading and just being smart. The only thing that matters here is that is brings up a much talked about old topic that Phil can’t shake: his gambling.

Mark Godich, senior editor, Sports Illustrated (@MarkGodich): Agreed, Gary, at least the part about his fans not caring. But no matter how you slice it, this isn’t a good look for Phil. 

Jeff Ritter, digital development editor, Sports Illustrated Golf Group (@Jeff_Ritter): It’s a bad look, and it begs the question: is there anything more to this? I thought this episode was over sometime around the 2014 U.S. Open. Phil returning funds (to whom?) doesn’t sound like a declaration of innocence. Gary is right about it being a victimless crime, but it still smells funny. 

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Michael Bamberger, senior writer, Sports Illustrated: It raises many more questions than it answers. In the absence of any defense from Mickelson, you’re likely to believe the government’s statement. You would think his wealth is vast and that he would not struggle to pay off a $1 million gambling debt. Also, I don’t see it as victimless. If one person makes, another person loses. Mickelson is so inquisitive, it’s hard to imagine him just accepting a suggestion to buy a stock, hold it briefly, then sell it. But Mickelson’s greatness as a player is rooted in the same sort of thing. He lives large, and that’s one of the things people like about him, and that won’t change. He’ll make even more effort now with fans and reporters, I would think. There’s so much good will there, in ways there was not when Tiger plowed over that hydrant. 

Alan Shipnuck, senior writer, Sports Illustrated (@AlanShipnuck): Mike is right, and in this case the guy who lost is actually getting screwed because he didn’t have the insider information. And it erodes trust in the entire financial system when guys like Phil are getting over in fishy deals. But Mickelson will survive this because every golf fan already knows he loves action, and this is just the latest example. 

2. Over the last three holes of the Irish Open, Rory McIlroy hit two of the boldest and most clutch shots of the year to secure the title by three strokes. The victory came on a soggy course that played to McIlroy’s length and he had a boisterous home crowd urging him on, but he also closed with a ruthlessness that we’ve haven’t seen from Rors in some time. How much stock do you put in the win?

Van Sickle: A lot, actually. Rory needed an icebreaker after his dismal last six months. It looked as if he’d forgotten how to close or as if maybe something was wrong. He kept saying he was close but his play didn’t back that up. Now it does. Rory is now a force to reckon with at Oakmont and beyond. It’s nice to have him back.

Godich: Epic, I’d say. Rory has made it no secret how much he’s wanted to win on his home soil. The way he finished is going to give him a ton of confidence. That said, there are still issues with the putter. 

Shipnuck: But as Rory just showed, he can beat a course into submission and render the putter somewhat irrelevant, at least for one week. This could be remembered as a very important win. Rory is the ultimate momentum player, and he’ll ride these good vibes for a while. Ideal timing given the compressed summer schedule. 

Ritter: Right, putting is generally Rory’s soft spot. But when he played head-to-head with Spieth on Masters Saturday he drove it terribly, which told me he wasn’t ready for the spotlight. This win is a big confidence booster, and he hit it like his former major-winning self. Look out. 

Bamberger: He’s a great player. He was before this week, he was this week, and he will be again. We are so major-centric now because the golf world is so scattered except at the majors and a few other events. It shouldn’t be. This is a big win, and the way he did it makes it even bigger. 

3. With Sergio Garcia’s playoff win over Brooks Koepka at the Byron Nelson, he tied Seve Ballesteros for most PGA Tour victories (nine) by a Spanish-born player. Has Garcia accomplished enough (he also has 11 Euro tour wins and 20.5 Ryder Cup points) to be mentioned in the same breath as Seve and their countryman Jose Maria Olazabal, or does he need a major title to be in their company?

Shipnuck: I’m offended by this question. 

Godich: Sergio needs major titles (plural) to get in the conversation, but, of course, the man himself has admitted that he doesn’t have what it takes to win a big one. Plus, it had been four years since his last Tour win, so it’s not as if he’s been winning regular events. 

Bamberger: On, no. Not even close. He had so many chances to win major titles and revealed a fundamental weakness: he’s a wonderful talent and fun to watch but when you talk about Seve, and even Olazabal, you’re talking about icons. If Sergio were going to be an icon we’d know it by now. 

Van Sickle: Sergio is no Seve and no Jose. He’s had a nice long run and been a very good player but he’s two Masters behind Jose and light years behind Seve, who was the Arnold Palmer of European golf. Sergio has had a terrific career, he should be very proud, but there was only one Seve. The comparison ends there.

Ritter: Sergio isn’t the new Seve; he’s the original Sergio. His major championship shortcomings and occasional brooding will always be part of his legacy. But he’s also been a multi-Tour stalwart and Ryder Cup assassin. As legacies go, you can do a lot worse. 

4. During the first three round of the Nelson, Jordan Spieth looked like Jordan Spieth again (64-65-67). But on Sunday he struggled mightily, in particular with his driver, on his way to a 74 and a T-18 finish. Factoring in his shaky Masters Sunday and missed cut at the Players, is there cause for concern at Spieth HQ?

Van Sickle: Spieth’s first name was ‘Fore Right’ on Saturday, too, but he somehow pulled a good round out of that mess. There should be cause for concern because while the rest of his game is fine–he shot 10 under despite driving it awful–he can’t compete at Oakmont or for any other major titles driving it like that. Now that his putting is back online, he’ll focus on the driver. I expect him to be hitting on all cylinders at Oakmont. It’s fixable.

Godich: I’m not ready to hit the panic button. Lest we forget, after winning the Masters last year, Spieth missed the cut at the Players and was a ho-hum 30th at the Nelson. He’ll get the driver fixed. The funny thing is, as shaky as the ball-striking was, the putter really let him down on Sunday. He missed very makeable putts at 8, 9, 10, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16. And four of those were for birdie, so the ball-striking wasn’t a total disaster. I’m guessing that’s a function of his suspect swings with the driver, putting extra pressure on his short game and all. Even with an ordinary day on the greens, he at least gets in the playoff.

Ritter: Spieth nearly won the Masters without anything close to his best and nearly pulled it off again this week. I don’t see him as far off. In fact, I see him as a threat to win with his B game. Only Jason Day falls into that same class today. 

Bamberger: I don’t know. This is based on nothing, but I don’t see him doing much of anything this year. I just don’t. Follow-ups are hard and he never had an offseason. 

Shipnuck: I think Spieth is like Rory was four days ago: his game is not quite there but it’s pretty close, and he just needs a shot of confidence. Of course, another Sunday collapse only makes it harder to find that belief. This is looking more and more like a lost year for Spieth, and a lot of it can be blamed on absurd scheduling going back to last fall. But I will say it’s fascinating to watch him scuffle and try to figure it out.

5. The Royal & Ancient has pulled Muirfield from the British Open rota after the Muirfield membership voted (just barely) to keep the club all-male. No-brainer decision by the R&A, or could a case be made that an all-male club playing host to an all-male tournament isn’t all that morally repugnant?

Van Sickle: Times have changed. It’s not even politically correct to have an all-male club anymore, much less one hosting a major. Royal Troon, also all-male, looks good by comparison next to Muirfield and should send the latter a thank-you note for taking all the headlines. You don’t want to allow women, or have any kind of membership restrictions, that’s fine, but you’re never going to host a big tournament in the 21st century. Back inside your caves, gents!

Godich: You make decisions like that, you live with the consequences. I’d say it’s time to get with the times, but it’s obvious that most of the boys at Muirfield don’t much care. 

Ritter: Credit the R&A for following through so quickly and decisively after Muirfield cast its vote. That was big statement for golf as an inclusive sport. 

Shipnuck: No, Muirfield made the big statement, that things haven’t changed as much as we think. The R&A was just reacting as it had to.

Bamberger: You want to be the host of a golf event that raises your club’s stature throughout the world, you should have an admission policy that does not discriminate against half the world’s population. The shame here, as I read Karen Crouse’s fine report about it in The New York Times, is that the club needed a 65% of the members to favor admitting women and came up just 30 votes shy. I think in five years or ten–or 50– years there will be another vote, women will be admitted and the Open will return to the home course of the Honorable Company of Edinburgh Golfers. 

6. At a Quicken Loans National media day at Congressional, Tiger Woods dunked three straight wedges into the water from 102 yards. Were these three meaningless swings from a rusty golfer that we shouldn’t waste time obsessing over, or a legitimate reason to be concerned about the state of Tiger’s game?

Bamberger: The latter. Tiger doesn’t make meaningless swings. You splash three times from 102, you have performance anxiety. That will show up in your driving, in your putting, in any shot with water or OB in play, in your chipping, and on your card. 

Shipnuck: Tiger’s not ready, we can all see that. It was, theoretically,  a meaningless little PR stunt except Woods sustained so much emotional scar tissue last year the last thing he needed was more humiliation. Michael calls it performance anxiety, I would go with stage fright. Either way, that hurt. 

Van Sickle: Figure an 18-month recovery time for back surgery and it’s too early to write off Tiger. He’s just not ready yet. That said, it’s never too early to worry about how much he’ll get back and when. His golfing future is a question mark and those splashdowns just raise more questions. The state of his game appears to be, “He doesn’t have one just yet.” Too soon.

Godich: The experts said when Tiger had the first surgery that it was a last-resort procedure. Then he had it done again. Last week, I saw a guy who gingerly got out of a chair and struggled to get loose. Based on the reports, I thought he’d tee it up at Memorial. Hope I’m wrong, but now I’m wondering if we’ll even see him in 2016. 

Ritter: It’s been said here many times, but there’s no reason for Tiger to rush it. A return at the Memorial feels reckless, and three dunks were a reminder that a setback or re-injury could very well be the end of his golf career. This is the time to just go slow. “Progressing slowly” may be his latest overused catchphrase, but it’s also the best strategy. I just wonder if he’ll be able to stick to it.