Me and Mickelson, Revisited
In this exclusive excerpt from the new “Phil” paperback, the author reflects on the turbulent last year for himself and the protagonist of the book
By Alan Shipnuck
April 24, 2023
I had not planned to cover LIV London; my kids’ summer vacation had just begun, and I would be away the ensuing week for the U.S. Open. But once Phil announced his return to public life, I felt compelled to be there. I scrambled to get an overnight flight and landed in London on the morning of the first round. Jane MacNeille, LIV’s senior vice president of player communications, met me at the entry gate of the Centurion Club to hand-deliver both my media credentials and a message: “Just so you know, Phil doesn’t want to talk to you.” Other than a pithy text message he sent me in February on the day the book excerpt dropped, I had not enjoyed any contact with Mickelson, as this book altered both of our lives. But I was noncommittal with MacNeille. I had crossed an ocean to do my job and wasn’t going to let LIV or Mickelson dictate the terms.
The first round had a fun and chaotic energy. Fans repeatedly ducked under the ropes to get closer to the action. Reporters scurried about to post iPhone videos of the action, unencumbered by LIV’s social media policies, which are far less restrictive than the PGA Tour’s. Mickelson looked surprisingly sharp during an opening 69 and he repeatedly flashed his familiar thumbs-up and aw-shucks smile for the decent-sized gallery.
After the round Mickelson journeyed to an interview area outside the press tent. I had my credential scanned to gain access to this roped-off spot, like every other reporter. I arrived just as Mickelson stepped to the microphone. Reporters and cameramen were already standing two- and three-deep against a metal railing, so I took my spot in the back row. Just as Mickelson began answering the first question, I felt some jostling to my right. I ignored it, assuming this was a persnickety cameraman trying to squeeze into the front row, which happens. Then a meaty hand squeezed my arm. Annoyed, I pulled it away without even looking back. Then someone grabbed my other arm. That was when I realized that I had been bracketed by a pair of neckless security goons. “We need to scan your badge,” one of them said.
I kept my eyes on Mickelson and said, “I’m good. It just got scanned two minutes ago.”
They tried to pull me backward, but drawing upon the swim move taught by my high school basketball coach, I wriggled free and stood my ground. Now these ear-pieced thugs grabbed me harder.
“Don’t fucking touch me,” I growled.
This worked, momentarily, and they loosened their grasps. But the balder, uglier of the two gents elbowed his way directly in front of me and said, with some heat, “We’re going to need to scan your badge. Right now.”
I suddenly became aware that some reporters were ignoring Mickelson and now watching my antagonists and me. In that split second I ran a quick cost-benefit analysis in my mind. The preceding four months—from the publication of the excerpts and then the release of this book and corresponding hoopla—had been an exceptionally turbulent time. A reporter’s job is to tell the story, not become it, but the revelations in this book and the upheaval it wrought for Mickelson put me at the center of the storm. The last thing I wanted was to make more headlines by rolling around in the dirt with a couple of security guards in front of the global golf press, so I decided to play peacemaker. I walked on my own volition about 20 steps to the nice young woman in charge of scanning the badges; the security henchmen shadowed my every move. My credential got zapped and it confirmed what each of us already knew: I had every right to be in the interview area. I strode back toward Mickelson, but the shorter, fatter security guard stepped directly in front of me, blocking my path.
“This is fucking ridiculous,” I said. “Who told you to pull this shit?”
“I don’t have to answer that,” he said, his breath reeking of tuna and onions.
We stood there talking in circles for a few more minutes. To his everlasting credit, the Welsh sportswriter James Corrigan—a frequent antagonist of mine on Twitter—wandered over and began heckling the security guards. About then Mickelson ended his press conference and exited stage right. The security dudes suddenly became unconcerned with the state of my media credential and skulked away.
I was pissed. I didn’t get to listen to Mickelson’s comments or ask him a question. I texted Greg Norman: “Are you aware that I just got muscled out of Phil’s press conference by a couple of your goons?” He didn’t respond immediately.
I retreated to the press room to put the final coat of polish on my dispatch about the debut of golf’s new world order. I didn’t mention the incident with the security guards because I didn’t want to make myself the story. After filing the article, I caught an Uber back to my hotel, closing my eyes for a few minutes at the end of a long, crazy day. When I connected to the wifi at the hotel, my phone began dinging like a slot machine. A video had begun making the rounds of my confrontation with the security guards. Shot by Alex Thomas, the sports anchor for CNN International, it captured the moments when I was being obstructed by the meatheads after having my badge scanned. Its Zapruder-like value comes from what can be glimpsed in the background: Standing directly behind me was Greg Fucking Norman. His face was contorted into such a scowl he looked like the Grim Reaper, only more devoid of a soul. I had no idea he had been standing right there, a witness to the tomfoolery of his security lackeys.
I was watching the video for a third or fourth time when my phone bleated again. It was Norman finally responding to my text, an hour and a half later: “Did not hear,” he wrote. “Thanks for letting me know.”
I really hadn’t wanted to go public with the events of the press conference because the whole thing was so dumb. But Norman’s bald-faced lie was too outrageous to let slide. I responded to him with an image from the video showing him lurking directly behind me and then screenshot the whole exchange and put it on Twitter. Hooo boy. The tweet went global, overshadowing the first round of the tournament. It got so much traction because it confirmed the widespread belief that Norman is a schmuck. My ejection from an otherwise innocuous press conference also fed the all-too-easy narrative of the Saudis’ aggressive disdain for a free press.
The next day, when I arrived at the course, MacNeille came to my desk to apologize for what had happened and say that, to her knowledge, no one at LIV had been responsible. She made the credible point that the last thing LIV execs wanted was more bad press, so none of them would have been stupid enough to toss me out of a presser in full view of my peers. In watching the video snippet, I had noticed that standing in the background, simpering, was Mickelson’s swing coach, Andrew Getson. At one point he leans in and whispers something to Norman, looking a little too pleased with himself. After subsequently unwinding the events with various involved parties, I believe that it was Mickelson, or his people, who sent in the clowns, not LIV. Sure, Norman could have interceded, but, charitably, he might not have grasped what was happening until it was too late. I confronted Mickelson’s manager, Peter Davis, with my theory. With his preppy wardrobe and slicked-back hair, Davis has the vibe of the punchable bad guy from every teen movie. He denied any culpability, but his smarmy smirk told a different story.
The whole kerfuffle is noteworthy not because one brave and hardworking reporter was mistreated but for what it apparently said about Mickelson and those around him: Despite the carefully worded press releases and cloying public statements, they still felt the rules didn’t apply to them, and that they could warp their reality, and public opinion, through bullying. When Mickelson returned from his exile, he paid a lot of lip service to being a changed man. The early returns suggested otherwise.
* * * *
Mickelson flew from London to Boston for the U.S. Open. On Tuesday of Open week, he met the golf press in a hot, sweaty tent adjacent to The Country Club’s clubhouse. In the moments before he arrived, there was an unmistakable electricity in the air. He showed up dressed in black, as if for a funeral. For 20 minutes, he got pounded with questions about the outrage of the 9/11 families, Saudi sportswashing, how much he had been heckled in his practice rounds, how the move to LIV might besmirch his legacy, the frosty reception from his colleagues, LIV’s alliance with Donald Trump, and sundry other unpleasant topics. Mickelson spoke in a deadened monotone; there was no mirth from a showman who had always treated press conferences as performance art. Mostly, Mickelson looked forlorn and defeated. Removed from the enablers and apologists on his payroll and away from the carefully cultivated artificial reality of LIV, he seemed to be feeling, for the very first time, how much ill will he had stirred up.
More public rebukes were to come. In July, Mickelson traveled to St. Andrews for the 150th Open Championship. The week was full of pomp, but the LIV awkwardness cast a dark shadow. The Royal & Ancient had already publicly disinvited Norman, a two-time Open champ, from attending any of the week’s events, noting (accurately) that his polarizing presence would be a monumental distraction. Open week began with the R&A Celebration of Champions, featuring 38 male and female winners of various British Amateurs and Opens. Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Nick Faldo, and Rory McIlroy were among the legends who played in the four-hole exhibition. So did amiable Louis Oosthuizen, who had pledged his allegiance to LIV. But noticeably absent was Mickelson. He also skipped the ensuing past champions dinner, having been made to feel unwelcome at both. “(The R&A) said, ‘Look, we don’t think it’s a great idea you go, but if you want to, you can,’” Mickelson said. “I just didn’t want to make a big deal about it, so I said fine. We both kind of agreed that it would be best if I didn’t.” One of the most enduringly popular golfers of the preceding three decades had suddenly become radioactive.
A couple of weeks after the Open, Mickelson did enjoy rich vindication: Forbes named him the highest paid athlete in the world, estimating he had earned $138 million in the preceding 12 months. (Tiger Woods, who in his heyday topped the list 10 years running, was surpassed by four LIV golfers despite weighing in at $68 million.) Professional golf had never been awash in so much funny money, and then the spigot was opened even further. At the Tour Championship, in August, embattled commissioner Jay Monahan announced that in 2023 the PGA Tour would roll out a super schedule of “elevated” tournaments with $20 million purses, double or more what these events had previously been paying out. Some would not bother with 36-hole cuts. It was LIV Lite, and in the wake of the announcement one veteran golf writer tweeted simply, “Phil was right.” OK, that was me. With more nuance: Mickelson had long nursed the suspicion that the PGA Tour was not giving the players their fair share of the revenue. He cited the Tour as having cash reserves of $800 million, an exaggerated number that hinted at the truth, especially with a new TV contract kicking in for the 2022 season. Faced with the LIV threat, the Tour created the nebulous Player Impact Program as a way to funnel money to the top players, and in less than a year the pot has ballooned from paying 10 players $40 million to distributing a whopping $100 million among 20 players. (One of the Tour’s best selling points had been that it is a pure meritocracy versus LIV’s corrupting guaranteed money, but the PIP now offers lavish compensation that is not directly tied to on-course performance.) Asked at the Tour Championship where all this fresh money would come from, Monahan said existing tournament sponsors would help defray the costs, but he also cited the primary source of this new largesse: “Reserves.” Phil was right, and even his shrillest critic begrudgingly admitted it. “As much as I probably don’t want to give Phil any sort of credit at all,” said McIlroy, “yeah, there were certain points that he was trying to make. Some of these ideas, did they have merit? Of course they did.” Mickelson had resolved not to publicly discuss Tour matters and was clearly trying to shed his smart aleck tendencies, but he couldn’t resist noting, “The guys on Tour are playing for a lot more money—that’s great that they magically found a couple hundred million.”
The sense of vindication, or righteousness, finally put a little pep in Mickelson’s step. He had looked utterly lost on the golf course since returning from exile, including woeful missed cuts at the U.S. and British Opens. But he tied for eighth at LIV Chicago and 15th at LIV Bangkok, and then he flew from Thailand to Saudi Arabia for LIV Jeddah. This was Mickelson’s first visit to the Kingdom since he had been quoted calling its people “scary motherfuckers.” He channeled all that anxiety into a relentless charm offensive. A fellow LIV golfer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says, “If you think Phil is a bullshit artist normally, this was another level. You’ve never seen anyone kiss so much ass with that kind of enthusiasm and skill. He was ‘on’ from the second he got off the plane and never broke character. I’m pretty sure by the end of the week he could have been elected mayor of King Abdullah City, if they actually held elections over there.”
Mickelson ramped up his rhetoric in his pre-tournament press conference, saying, “Pretty much all the best players played on the PGA Tour, at least for the last 20 years. That will never be the case again. I think going forward you have to pick a side. You have to pick which side you think is going to be successful. And I firmly believe that I’m on the winning side of how things are going to evolve and shape in the coming years for professional golf.” Those were fighting words, but another question in the presser offered a chance at reconciliation: “You made some comments about this country last year which you’ve apologized for. I wondered how you feel about it now that you’re here? Have you changed your opinion?”
This was the ultimate softball, a chance for Mickelson—who at that moment was adorned with a temporary henna tattoo he had received the night before at a tournament party—to wax about the wonders of Saudi Arabia and the hospitality of its people. Instead, he responded, “So I will reiterate, I never did an interview with Alan Shipnick. And I find that my experience with everybody associated with LIV Golf has been nothing but incredibly positive and I have the utmost respect for everybody that I’ve been involved with.”
Once again, Mickelson was trying to be too cute by half, suggesting in this little semantic game that our hour-long phone call that informs a crucial chunk of this book had not been an actual interview. At least, that’s how I took it, but fans and reporters less learned in the black art of Mickelsonian misdirection thought he was claiming I had made up the whole thing. (If that was the case, what the heck was he always apologizing for?) Instead of some warm, fuzzy remarks about his host nation, Mickelson touched on another frenzied news cycle about his weirdness and duplicity. He was forced to clarify his remarks the next day to Bob Harig of Sports Illustrated: “We agreed multiple times that I was not going to be interviewed or a part of the book. He obviously took a conversation differently and we’re going to have to agree to disagree.” This was utterly nonsensical. Not be part of the book? He is the book! We had no such agreement that he wouldn’t be interviewed; that’s why I kept asking him to sit for questions. And then he called me.
A funny and ridiculous postscript came by way of a phone call from someone very close to Mickelson, who told me, “When he said your name wrong in Jeddah, I know him well enough to know that he intentionally mispronounced it. That way he has a technicality he can fall back on: ‘I didn’t say Shipnuck, I said Shipnick.’ I know it sounds crazy but that’s how smart he thinks he is.”
To order a copy of Phil, click here. But no pressure.
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.