#AskAlan, Mickelson Edition
As Phil steps away from the game, I answer all of your questions about his incendiary quotes and the story-behind-the-story
By Alan Shipnuck
Have you heard from Phil? @GeoffShac
He sent me a text on the morning the excerpt dropped. He was less than thrilled. Just as in the statement he released on Tuesday afternoon, Mickelson made a half-hearted attempt at revisionist history, trying to say our talk had been a private conversation, but I shut that down real quick. He knew I was working on a book about him and asked to speak, saying he wanted to discuss media rights and his grievances with the PGA Tour, both of which inevitably lead back to Saudi Arabia. If the subject of a biography phones the author, the content of that conversation is always going to inform the book, unless it is expressly agreed otherwise. Not once in our texts or when we got on the phone did Mickelson request to go off-the-record and I never consented to it; if he had asked, I would have pushed back hard, as this was obviously material I wanted for the book. Mickelson simply called me up and opened a vein. To claim now that the comments were off-the-record is false and duplicitous.
I completely understand that Phil needs to be perceived as the smartest guy in the room; just look at his long-time tour nickname FIGJAM. (Editor’s note: F*ck I’m Good Just Ask Me.) How could he ever think that saying such things about the Saudis (all true) when he’s in business with them wouldn’t come back to bite him? @rhallisey
Even knowing he came armed with an agenda, I was amazed by Mickelson’s bluntness when we spoke. My take is that he wanted his true feelings on record but, as always, was working both sides of the street. If he wound up signing with the SGL, at least the quotes would serve as a signal to golf fans that he knows the Saudis are bad actors and it’s strictly a business decision. If he remained in the fold with the PGA Tour, he would have made it clear he did so only after extracting many of the concessions he wanted, thus fulfilling the need, as you note, to feel like he had outsmarted everyone else. Mickelson loved The Queen’s Gambit—“It fits his obsessive personality,” his wife, Amy, told me—but it turns out he is not quite the master strategist that he fancies himself.
Alan, a question on the truth and background of your piece: You had this for 3 months, you love the Tour … did you push it out for love? Was it orchestrated (or did you discuss) with Jay Monahan? The repercussions are amazing, the background must be fascinating as well. @RealTurtleBR
My relationship with the Tour is complicated, and love does not accurately capture it. I would never let them dictate terms to me about anything, least of all a book I am writing. Commissioner Monahan was as surprised as everyone else when this story posted. I have gone on record plenty of times with my disdain for the Saudis’ sportswashing, but that doesn’t mean I’m here to do the Tour’s bidding. My fealty (to use a new favorite word) is to the readers, and to the truth. Mickelson is at the center of an important development in the golf world, and I had the opportunity to advance the story with real reporting. The chips will fall where they may, but that is not my concern.
Respectfully, why did you hold Phil’s explosive comments until now? @JedDeMuesy
Everything pertaining to the Saudi Golf League has been hazy and uncertain and I wanted to see how it was going to play out. Five days ago, a top player agent told me the Saudis had been waiting to make an official announcement until they had signed their 20th player…and that they had just reached 20 and a splashy kickoff event was going to be held the week of the Players Championship in mid-March. (I respect the pettiness.) With things at a boil, it felt like it was the right time to make known Mickelson’s true feelings. It took some convincing with Simon & Schuster, as publishers prefer for excerpts to come out around the time a book is released, not three months in advance. But what Phil told me was simply too important to sit on.
What does it feel like to hit send on a tweet that changes the history of the game of golf? @td445544
That seems rather grandiose. I did know this was going to explode, and I would say the moment you describe felt… fraught. A lot of people were going to be affected, including some scary mofos. I definitely skipped breakfast that morning. I have empathy for Mickelson, and there is a lot to unpack in his statement where he discusses the stress of having led a big, controversial life for so long. In the wake of the excerpt, folks have asked if my book is a “hit piece” or if I’m out to “bury” Phil. No to both of those. It’s a fair, balanced look at his life and career. I would say it is written with affection, because I have always enjoyed covering Phil, despite our occasional dust-ups. There are tons of outrageous tales and laugh-out-loud moments. But he has been involved in a lot of messiness, and that’s all in the book too.
Did you see this blowing up as big as it did, and do you wish you had released more, less, or something different of what Phil said on the topic? @MichaelSmyth
I think it was the right amount. I must say I am a little surprised at the intensity of the backlash. Wasn’t it obvious all along that Mickelson was playing the Saudis against the PGA Tour? I guess it hits differently when you say the quiet parts out loud. It’s a reminder that Mickelson has always been polarizing and remains so. And that anything involving Saudi Arabia—which supplied 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers—remains highly emotional.
I mentioned the Larry David fatwa episode to you a few days ago, but I fear it might turn real because you saved the PGA Tour and sunk the SGL with the timing of the Phil excerpt. Is a lifetime achievement award from the PGA Tour really worth looking over your shoulder forever? @Elpulpo8888
I welcome the fatwa jokes… as long as they are jokes!
Would the Saudi League have succeeded if it hadn’t been associated with the Saudis? Let’s say someone like Softbank had bankrolled a league with the same format and same stars but without the moral outrage of the Saudi component. Would that league have made it? @luke_peacock
What you are describing is the Premiere Golf League; the folks behind that are mostly European interests. They didn’t have the money to steal the top stars from the PGA Tour, so they approached the Saudis to help fund it; the Saudis simply stole their idea and made a go of it alone. The PGL had a cool schedule lined up all around the world. I think it would have been a great product, and if it could have been free of the taint of Saudi money, it would have well-received as a fresh take on professional golf.
Would you consider what the Tour is doing monopolistic in squashing a would-be competitor? They’ve already gobbled up mini-tours and forced new touring professionals to come through their development tours…@hubtub18
Sure it’s monopolistic, but it’s also smart business if they can get away with it. The current arrangement is certainly good for the Tour. Given how much money they’re raking in, it’s pretty good for the players too, though clearly a few of them have their grievances. The biggest losers are the fans. A robust competitor, whether it be the PGL or SGL, would force the Tour to innovate and improve a rather stale product. In the absence of that, it will just be more of the same.
I think sponsors helped break the Saudi deals with the Tour: Play here or we ain’t paying. Hot or cold take? @nolachgz
That’s always been an underlying issue, and marketplace jitters were baked into the bloated Saudi offers, as players were sure to lose some endorsements. Even before the excerpt dropped I heard from a wired-in source that Workday has chosen not to renew Mickelson’s deal when it expires just before the Masters, and since then a top player agent has seconded that; we shall see. A lot of factors go into this kind of decision, but squeamishness about the Saudis would have to be a factor. A source at Callaway—where Mickelson has a lifetime contract—says KPMG’s top executives had been in touch to inquire how Callaway was going to move forward and that might affect KPMG’s decision; on Tuesday, KPMG announced it was ending its long relationship with Mickelson. (In his statement, Phil notes that his corporate relationships may or may not all be on “pause,” which is a clever euphemism.) So a lot of wheels are turning, which was always inevitable if and when players get in bed with the Saudis.
Yes, and Phil too. Some $100 million more is flowing to the players this year and the threat of the SGL is the big reason why, and Norman and Mickelson have been the driving forces. Who knows what the Tour’s new NFT platform will look like, but it’s safe to say Phil was instrumental in making that happen.
If the SGL is in fact dead, they will do what Phil is going to do: try to mend fences privately while publicly saying they were intrigued by the possibilities but ultimately their heart was with the PGA Tour. It will be an eye-roll moment, but no more so than the annual “grow the game” comments when the players jet off to collect appearance fees at the Saudi International.
Is Phil suspended? @Jeremy_Rudock
Given the statement he just released, maybe. I suppose “conduct unbecoming” is broad enough that the Tour could find a reason to suspend Mickelson, but that would just kind of prove his point that it’s a tone-deaf dictatorship. What is Phil’s transgression, other than using some naughty words? The Saudis are already part of the European Tour and now the Asian Tour; like it or not, they are a recognized force in the golf world. Paying for attorneys to write the SGL’s operating agreement is certainly a little shady, but I doubt it’s expressly forbidden in Tour’s player handbook. Mickelson pressing pause feels a lot like Dustin Johnson’s time away from the game to focus on his personal growth. Is it a suspension or a voluntary leave of absence? Some of it is just semantics. DJ emerged as a better person and player. I wish the same for Phil.
Given that most casual golf fans don’t spend time with golf Twitter, many are probably unaware of the events of this week. Given this, what sort of reception do you expect Mickelson to receive the next time he tees it up? @FisherM24
This is a key point: Golf Twitter is not real life. Most fans are barely paying attention to the Saudi intrigue, although that may change with Mickelson having released his statement. Phil will survive this controversy just as he has survived all of the other preceding controversies. Those who love him will still love him, because the Saudi dalliance is on-brand for a self-styled maverick. Those who don’t will just have another reason to justify their feelings. Phil has survived Billy Walters, playing tennis on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills during the national championship and throwing Tom Watson under a Greyhound. He is nothing if not a survivor.