We’re two weeks from the PGA Championship and Phil Mickelson still isn’t talking, a strange proposition for a guy who has spent three-plus decades seemingly slipping into character before he pours his first cup of coffee and seeking out the nearest microphone or TV camera at every opportunity.
But these are weird times in golf.
Before he went incommunicado, though, the reigning PGA champ did have plenty to say. Often, it was (and still is) highly entertaining or insightful. Many times, it was agenda-driven (see: whacking his moving ball at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills) or even manipulative (see: the last time he did speak, when he issued a ham-handed apology in which he portrays himself as, among other things, a victim).
Other times, what he said was simply too much.
That was the case when he willingly admitted that he was fine with overlooking the long list of human rights atrocities of Saudi Arabia — a country with a direct purse string from its purveyors of death to the LIV Golf Series — for the sake of leverage with the PGA Tour, an organization whose “obnoxious greed,” as Mickelson put it, helped line his pockets with well over $100 million over the years.
He’s not the only player willing to turn a blind eye — a number of the game’s stars are publicly or privately considering the controversial rival circuit, possible suspension be damned.
But to understand why Mickelson went scorched earth in an interview with someone writing a book about him you have to first understand his mindset. Unhinged rant, yes, but Phil always has considered himself the smartest guy in the room, has skated on the edges of controversy before and earned the unflattering nickname “FIGJAM” early on in his career for a reason.
He’d also been beating this latest drum for a while — before the drumstick, and Mickelson himself, snapped.
Late last year, as I was in the process of going from covering golf full-time, which I had done the last 12 years, to eventually joining The Post, I tweeted out criticism of the plain-as-day sportswashing that Bubba Watson was doing at the hands of his Saudi Arabian benefactors. The following day, Mickelson shot me an unprompted message. I wasn’t writing a book — like Alan Shipnuck — but I was still covering the sport and began asking questions.
“Tour players are some of the most informed athletes in the sports, they are aware Saudi Arabia has a terrible history of human rights, They killed (Jamal) Khashoggi, we have loved ones who are gay and they kill people for being gay,” Mickelson began. “So why are we still considering joining the League? … We all have more money then [sic] we can possibly spend so it’s not that.”
After some back and forth, Mickelson expounded, honing in on the same things — control of his own media rights, chief among them — that he did in his now infamous interview with Shipnuck that landed him in hot water in the court of public perception.
“If the players have a voice or ‘own’ the Tour, I am saying I would like to own my media rights and digital moments,” Mickelson wrote in his string of replies to me. “Where are they then? Where’s the vote?
“Why is a Tour that is non-profit based on not ‘taking’ anything from players but rather helping players create opportunities paying millions in a marketing campaign to disparage players who welcome another competitive tour? Or stopping a collaboration because it would be owned by players and the tour would not control it 100 percent?”
As reported by The Post’s Mark Cannizzaro, a proposal was put in front of PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan last October, with the concept being an eight-event series featuring top players, huge purses and, most importantly, player ownership. It got shot down.
Meanwhile, Mickelson kept on pleading his case.
“The music industry had to change from the label owning the master recording to working with the artists and creating a partnership when the model changed due to the internet and apple technology,” he wrote, equating that world to a shifting landscape in golf.
It’s also worth mentioning that Mickelson’s leave of absence from the sport is perhaps connected to other details in the impending book from Shipnuck, which, among other things, details $40 million in gambling losses in one four-year period.
Or perhaps there are more troublesome tales forthcoming in a book that is supposed to be due out later this year from famed gambler Billy Walters, a former Mickelson friend who was jailed for insider trading and had allegedly given stock tips to Mickelson that allowed Lefty to pay off gambling debts.
As for where things with the PGA Tour, Mickelson and the Saudi golf league go from here, they remain as uncertain as the six-time major champion’s future. For now, anyway. Phil’s still not talking, yet.
“The Tour wants to be the 100% dictator in a changing environment,” Mickelson wrote in one of his last messages before eventually going dark. “I believe it will be self-destructive but we will see.”