Monday, April 22

Phil Mickelson’s spectacular fall and golf’s infighting over Saudi riches | Ewan Murray

It may be a stretch to say Phil Mickelson profited from the demise of Tiger Woods. Nonetheless, when Woods became embroiled in a 2009 infidelity scandal Mickelson, soon to win a third Masters, became the poster boy of the American golfing public. Mickelson’s play was swashbuckling and successful, his image clean enough to eat one’s dinner from. As Tiger lay embarrassed, grinning Phil captured hearts and minds.

It seems poetic, then, that Mickelson has suddenly fallen victim to golf’s biggest reputational trashing since Woods hit the front page of the National Enquirer. And this, at a time when Woods’s latest comeback from serious injury continues against a backdrop of huge external support. The trouble with going to great lengths to portray yourself as purer than the driven snow is that when a counter-narrative appears, sceptics will not be slow to shout about it.

A week ago, Mickelson was closely linked to a Saudi Arabian-backed Super Golf League fronted by Greg Norman. Mickelson had accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” over matters which nobody in the wider world had particular reason to care about. Mickelson’s position in the pantheon of greats was unharmed. Now? In a world not at all renowned for caustic criticism, Rory McIlroy has branded Mickelson “naive, egotistical, selfish, ignorant”. Mickelson has lost sponsorship. The prospects of him captaining the US Ryder Cup team or forging a future career in the television booth are, at best, remote. For an individual who placed such stock in a careful public-relations policy, his has been a remarkable implosion. Whisper it, but Brand Phil was never particularly convincing.

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Mickelson has produced extraordinary moments in his career but nothing to match the simultaneous scorching of the Saudis and the PGA Tour. “They are scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said of Saudi Arabia. “We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse.” So Mickelson knew precisely about the issues that afflict any relationship with Saudi Arabia but, in the name of commercial leverage, proceeded anyway.

He delivered a half-hearted apology, saying his “off the record” speech had been taken “out of context”. Alas, “scary motherfuckers” would not seem to require broader detail. For a man of Mickelson’s experience and intelligence – he is far from stupid – to miscalculate the impact of these words being delivered to a biographer defies belief. Norman’s scheme no longer makes fiscal sense, if it ever did, such is the level of opposition by players at the summit of golf. Mickelson still found time to laud the “visionaries” behind it, as if the entire idea is not integral to rebranding Saudi’s dismal global reputation via golfers who have little by way of conscience. Xander Schauffele, the world No 7, cuttingly said the SGL “isn’t close to a finished product or a business model”. And after years of trying.

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Xander Schauffele made a cutting remark about the SGL.
Xander Schauffele made a cutting remark about the SGL. Photograph: Rick D’Elia/EPA

There has been speculation the PGA Tour may suspend Mickelson. Such a move would be futile. Damage already done to this individual and the SGL is such that sanction would serve no purpose. Mickelson, once the darling of the galleries, will suffer when subjected to ridicule on his return to the fairways. And he is almost guaranteed to struggle; last year’s US PGA Championship win sits as the clear exception to a dismal run of results. Mickelson may re-emerge from cold storage at the Masters – spectators would be used to prop up a Georgia overpass should they abuse a past champion – but is a near certainty to miss the PGA Tour’s marquee event, the Players Championship, in mid-March.

Mickelson has earned $95m from PGA Tour competition, meaning he is second only to Woods. The Tour’s pension fund is famously generous. He has enjoyed huge endorsement contracts. Quite why, at 51, Mickelson wants or needs to pursue dubious desert riches should be a source of general bemusement. If his absolute goal was to run or control the Tour, a simple pitch saying as much – which would inevitably have garnered support, such is his profile – would have been far more worthwhile than trying to play rope-a-dope with the Public Investment Fund.

While Mickelson’s fall reverberates across sport, there is also cause to contemplate what the Saudis will do next. The notion that the kingdom will abandon the disruption plan is contradicted by, for example, the protracted but ultimately successful pursuit of Newcastle United. Norman’s open letter to the PGA Tour, published on Thursday, warned: “This is just the beginning.” The Australian has a salary that dictates such bullishness is necessary.

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Yet there also exists a clutch of golfers, many of whom are in the latter stages of their mainstream careers, who will still be tempted by Saudi riches. Theirs would be a dumbed down environment but when dollar signs prevail above all else in the thought process, this may not matter. The silence from that group, among them Ryder Cup icons, is deafening.

At Newcastle, the Saudis were not attempting to overthrow an existing sporting ecosystem. They are not, either, in women’s golf. Involvement with the Ladies European Tour has seen the lucrative Aramco Series develop without much fuss at all. Industry insiders now believe Norman could turn his attention towards the making of further inroads on that tour, which has a captive audience due to stark economics. Not that a smooth road would be guaranteed; Martin Slumbers, the chief executive of the R&A, and his counterpart at the DP World Tour, Keith Pelley, sit on the LET board. Alliances exist between the LET and the US-based LPGA Tour, just as they do between the LPGA Tour and the PGA Tour.

Norman has chosen to focus on claims that no player can combine the super league with the PGA Tour. The former world No 1 believes this is a policy that cannot stand. It is a topic worthy of minor intrigue, and could in theory result in courtroom battles, but Mickelson’s tumble dominates his sport’s discourse. Woods knows the movie all-too well.

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