Phil Mickelson

Phil Was Right…Sort of

The PGA Tour’s sweeping moves demand a reexamination of Mickelson’s legacy as an agent of change

By Alan Shipnuck

ATLANTA—Phil was right.

Of course, Monsieur Mickelson went about things in entirely the wrong way, which is typical of a complex, contradictory character who so often has been his own worst enemy. Now that his former place of business, the PGA Tour, has undergone a sweeping transformation in an effort to thwart the upstart competitor he championed, it is time to reassess Mickelson’s legacy as an agent of change.

The tumultuous events of the past two weeks have provided some sweet vindication for Phil. As he laid out for me in a freighted phone call in November 2021, Mickelson has long believed that PGA Tour players need to have more say in how they are governed. That is exactly what has transpired, as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have emerged as de facto co-commissioners. Cementing the players’ new muscle is the remaking of the Tour’s all-powerful board of directors, as it has been expanded from nine seats to 10, with the players being given a fifth representative; no longer are they outnumbered by bureaucrats and businessmen. 

As Jon Rahm told me this week at the Tour Championship, “As players, we have been told [by Tour leadership] a million and a half times, You are the PGA Tour. And I think recently might be the first time I feel like they actually care about what players think.”

The mini-uprising led by Woods and McIlroy has forced changes to the schedule in an effort to get the best players competing against each other more often. This has also been a longtime Mickelson talking point: He is an outspoken critic of opposite-field events, believing they water down the Tour’s product, and as Brandel Chamblee told me about being paired with Phil at the B.C. Open in the 1990s, “Knowing that I was on the Player Advisory Council, he spent the whole time in my ear saying the PGA Tour should be reduced to only the top 30 players—nothing but the stars. He was totally oblivious to the fact that would eliminate my job.”

Mickelson was seduced by LIV Golf’s fantastical money because he has long nursed the grievance that, as the second biggest star of the past quarter-century, he was vastly underpaid. (Whether he was compelled to take the Saudis’ money because of what he has since called a gambling addiction is a question that is explored in detail in my recently published biography.) In our phone conversation, Mickelson noted that his on-course earnings peaked in 2009 at $8.3 million, including the FedEx Cup bonus, a fraction of what top players earn in team sports. What particularly bothered Mickelson was his suspicion that the PGA Tour was not giving the players a fair share of the revenue. He cited the Tour had cash reserves of $800 million, an exaggerated number that hinted at the truth. Faced with the LIV threat, the Tour has suddenly opened the spigot of new TV money. The nebulous Player Impact Program was created out of thin air 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 strongest differentiators was as a pure meritocracy versus LIV’s potentially corrupting guaranteed money, but the PIP now offers lavish compensation that is not tied to on-course performance.) Hasty increases in purses and additional bonus programs put another another $95 million in the pockets of PGA Tour players in 2022, and now the Tour has committed to a slate of a dozen mega-tournaments with $20 million purses, more than double what many of these events paid out this year. Asked on Wednesday where all this fresh money would come from, commissioner Jay Monahan said existing tournament sponsors will help defray the costs, but he also cited the primary source of this new largesse: “Reserves.” Phil was right.

He was also obsessed with how players could better monetize their their name-image-likeness, particularly through NFTs. Voíla, the PGA Tour announced this spring a program to peddle NFTs for its players, though details remain nebulous. (NFTs of LIV golfers are already for sale.) Mickelson railed against the Tour for charging him a $1 million licensing fee to compete in made-for-TV exhibitions, part of what he called a pattern of stifling the players’ ability to market themselves outside of the traditional confines. Now, in the new world order, the Tour is happily supplying its stars for a series of Monday night indoor team exhibitions, in a fledgling enterprise called TGL, which is owned by Woods and McIlroy.

It’s impossible to say how many of these changes would have come about without Mickelson’s brinkmanship, but he undoubtedly played a crucial role. Billions of new dollars will flow to the game’s best players in the next few years, but Mickelson is getting, at best, grudging acknowledgement. As McIlroy said this week, “As much as I probably don’t want to give Phil any sort of credit at all, yeah, there were certain points that he was trying to make. Some of these ideas, did they have merit? Of course they did.”

The lingering bitterness toward Mickelson—not just from players but also fans and other stakeholders in the game—is less about what he did than how he did it, particularly the sneakiness. He was conducting stealthy negotiations with Monahan while at the same time secretly helping the Saudis organize LIV. Acting as a double agent inevitably leaves both sides with the gnawing suspicion that the two-timer is only out for himself; in McIlroy’s formulation, it was “a renegade group trying to take some sort of power grab of the PGA Tour.” Rory and Tiger have taken the exact opposite tact of Mickelson’s self-serving approach. These new guardians of the Tour have solicited consensus and fostered solidarity, galvanizing the other players to work together for the greater good. (This approach inevitably benefits the individuals too.) McIlroy and Woods have been hailed for their leadership, and their standing in the game has only been further solidified.

It was only 15 months ago that Mickelson, at the age of 51, won the PGA Championship in the crowning moment of a legendary career. As he was enveloped in a delirious crush of fans on the final fairway of the Ocean Course, one of golf’s most enduringly popular players had never been more beloved. But behind the scenes, forces were already in motion that would forever cloud his legacy and turn him into a pariah on the tour that made him a star. Mickelson has earned a nine-figure bonanza from LIV and helped reshape the landscape of professional golf. But it is impossible not to wonder if, in his quiet moments, he still believes this fight was worth it.

33 thoughts on “Phil Was Right…Sort Of”

  1. So to be clear, waiting until LIV forced the PGA Tour to change its model while hypocritically ripping them for ties to human rights violators you have also taken appearance fees from while being dressed head to toe in apparel made in a Chinese sweatshop is the noble move? Lee Westwood has these guys dead to rights with his comments in Golf Digest. The fawning praise Rory is getting is baffling to me. He took advantage of the risks others took and not only let them get bashed but was a leader of the bashing. He has no moral high ground here.

    1. Excellent analysis…..the truth is Phil was shouting but the Tour/Monahan wouldn’t listen. PGA Tour slow-played it believing they could bury their foe with bogus claims of “Saudi sportswashing”. That woke ship didn’t sail.

      Fowler was right. Monahan/Tour should have acted much much sooner to the reality of LIV golf. Phil wasn’t a “double agent.” He gave the Tour every chance until it was clear they had zero interest in upping the ante until they had a gun to their head.

      1. When you wrote ‘That woke ship didn’t sail’…you lost me.
        Turn down your radio.
        And change the channel on your TV.

  2. @Phil
    While there is definitely more than enough hypocrisy to go around, I think the authors was pretty clear in highlighting the fact that what separates the McIlroy’s from the Mickelson’s of the world is not exactly what they did, but how they went about it.

    It’s always cringeworthy to watch millionaires and billionaires fighting over bags of money and control over the purse strings, and no one ever comes out without mud on their face. However some credit does deserve to be given to those who consistently state their positions and goals (McIlroy) over those who duplicitously try to play two sides against each other for their own benefit (Mickelson), or feign some benevolent stance like “growing the game” and “work-life balance” as cover for a clearly financial decision (Westwood/Poulter).

    Pointing out the hypocrisy is fair game, but framing players who took the money and ran like they’re martyrs not getting credit for being agents of change is a bit much, in my opinion.

    1. I am not defending the LIV guys at all. I am beyond sick of media members acting like Rory is some saint who “saved the game of golf.” His comment to Sergio that, “we are golfers, we don’t deserve to get paid anything” was pure sanctimony. No one in the press in calling him to account.

      1. The media is more than happy to raise Rory to sainthood…their revenue comes from the woke companies that sponsor the Tour (Fed Ex,, Coca Cola, etc.) Golf Channel, Golf Digest, Golf Week sites will only give you one side of the story and zero opportunity to reply to their biased reporting. Praise to Fire Pit for providing public discourse!

        1. That’s the second comment of yours that has used the term “woke.” To what are you referring? I’m not hip to the code.

      2. Hey Phil…and BobbyTeeItUp as well…yeah…every time I see Rory do his “kong” impersonation and shout “come on” to the heavens I have to smile. His PGA Tour is being sponsored by Saudi money and the clothes on his back come from sweat shops in China. But he can take the high road (in his own mind anyway). Doubt he could spell “mensa”. And it wasn’t so long ago I thought he was the fresh face – and had the game – that the PGA Tour needed to backstop Tiger’s decline.
        Here’s a snippet that Rory will likely never hear about (us saudi.org):
        FedEx Express, a subsidiary of FedEx Corp. and the world’s largest express transportation company, announced a SR1.5 billion ($400 million), 10-year investment plan to directly service Saudi Arabia’s domestic and international shipping markets. Jack Muhs, regional president of FedEx Express Middle East, Indian Subcontinent, and Africa remarked, “Our customers will be able to take advantage of FedEx digital tools and a wider service portfolio. This strategic expansion in the Kingdom will help Saudi-based businesses connect to new markets and customers around the world, supporting Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030 goals to diversify the national economy.” FedEx Express has facilitated trade in Saudi Arabia since 1994 through local service providers, most recently SAB Express, with whom FedEx Express will continue to work to provide pickup, delivery, and customs clearance services in the Kingdom.

  3. Not so fast about Phil the Profit(Prophet?). The PGA Tour, up until this week, was all about creating a golf league of meritocracy that was dedicated to giving all the aspiring young and talented golfers what they always dreamed about – an fair opportunity to earn a PGA card. Resources were distributed so that there would always be young golfers coming up from the Korn Ferry Tour each year to compete on a level playing field with the prime time stars and aging superstars. It was a dynamic and exciting system that rewarded dedication, hard work, sacrifice, and above all merit. As you all mentioned yesterday in your podcast, that system will be gone or at least diminished with the redistribution of funds and tournament invitations weighted to the established players. Whither Korn Ferry? Will it still have the resources to exist? How will the young guns break through into the new tour within a tour structure? It is not at all clear. You 4 guys didn’t have any answers and neither did Monahan.

    So yeah, call Phil a Profit or a Prophet but at what expense? At the expense of destroying the strong “top to bottom” golf tour in which he flourished and became an excessively rich and greedy human being?

    What price, glory?

  4. Not much of what Phil said in his tactless November diatribe has proven to be off the mark. So golf fan’s have every right to believe Phil’s insistence that his remarks to Mr Shipnuck were tacitly “off the record”? How many tour players will be forthcoming with candor to this party in the future ?

  5. There’s no “sort of” about it. The Tour has been ham-fisted in its defense from the outset. I have no idea if LIV will ultimately be successful, but I do know that Phil and the Shark have been proven quite right in their complaints regarding The Tour. Would’ve been very interesting to see how this would’ve all played out initially if not for the firestorm surrounding the biography excerpt.

    1. I suspect LIV will struggle to recruit a next wave of players once they go through their four year commitments on their current field. Many have been open about using LIV to achieve “early retirement” which is what most of them meant by spending more time with family. It wasn’t all about playing fewer weeks, it was knowing you could put in four more years and be done. They deserve world ranking points and that should be worked out, but if they can’t get guys who are competitive in majors down the line, it won’t last.

  6. Can’t resist an additional comment. Is it me or does Lefty look fat in the above picture? It would appear he is not taking golf all that seriously now that he’s swimming in guaranteed money. Maybe Tiger was the real prophet when he asserted that no cut contracts reduce incentive.

    Also, Mr. Shipnuck, I’m intrigued into how Phil figures into your celebrity and your life. With all due respect, your name never rang any bells inside my mind until the “scary mofos” comment. Then I went to the library, checked out all your books, enjoyed them immensely, and eventually found my way to this site. Woodward and Bernstein had their Nixon, and you’ve got your Phil. It must be a weird feeling that you two will also be forever linked together. He became a villain and you became a hero. Not just that but has there ever been a conversation between a golfer and a writer that had as much impact on golf history as the “scary mofos” chit chat? Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

  7. In any profession, you strive to make as much money as you can and to be respected by your peers, unless your a complete asshole, and we’ve all worked with them and for them.
    The quiet times and the dark of night lying in bed, I’m betting Phil will eventually regret altering his reputation for the bag of cash.
    The one thing you can never do in life, is buy someone’s respect once it’s gone.

  8. Similar tones to 2014 Ryder Cup press conference when Phil caught flak for hanging Tom Watson out to dry. Basically everything he said that was wrong ended up changing…..and by 2016 it was a different Ryder Cup tone for the U.S.

    Like him or not, and honestly I still like him…..he is a smart guy who has a true feel for the pulse of the game.

    Whether he ever reaches the love of the 2021 PGA again is unknown, but I think he will be back in the good graces of the public within a year…..

    And all of the sanctimonious media type and players will conveniently forget all….or most of….the “terrible” things he’s done….. you know like taking $200M to compete in an upstart league —- how dare he? It’s all so ridiculous and theatrical. The Saudi’s component is just —- who cares really? Let’s all put down our mock outrage for a minute please….

    1. The problem with your point is that Phil is the one who started all the moral “mock” outrage with his comments to Mr. Shipnuck about Saudis being scary mofos who kill gays and journalists and oppress their women.

  9. Lefty was right(y).

    That said, I still prefer the old and long-standing Tour model (upstarts competing against veterans on a level playing field, eat what you kill, etc.). Too bad the fans don’t get a vote. Oh, that’s right, we do (TV ratings). And I for one am far less interested in following the professional game in this fractured, money-centric environment. Time will tell if others feel the same way.

  10. Five dollar clubs

    So, they sue the PGA Tour because they don’t want to play by the rules they knew when they signed up, yet they happily surrender to the LIV rules? Does the recently released LIV contract have any provision for conflicting event release? How do you spell irony? Double standard?
    Contractors, independent or not, in any industry are subject to rules.

  11. “These new guardians of the Tour have solicited consensus and fostered solidarity, galvanizing the other players to work together for the greater good.” – Yes. And the effects ripple out to others as well – to anyone trying to make sense of it all.

  12. The top LIV and PGA Tour player’s caddies are probably pretty happy. They’re about to make some serious caddying money.

  13. Sarel van der Walt

    Interesting for me is how the other regional PGA tours (Sunshine Tour, Australian PGA, Japan PGA Tour, Asian Tour) will react to the US PGA Tour going this route. Many, if not most, of their stars, have now changed to LIV, so they may see better commercial sense in partnering with LIV than with US/European Tour, especially wrt WGC events.

  14. From my perspective on “the other side of the pond” I do find the whole PGA argument somewhat alarmist and baffling,
    Here you have a “fair and honest” Tour that has (over the last 30 years) systematically sort to destroy all the other Tours. Tying foreign players to commitments that means their time to play their home tours all but vanishes (with no investment or compensation into their home tour with regards to talent development ) on a tournament schedule set up to ensure that 99 percent of the time the wind isn’t blowing and the sun is shining.
    Now I realise that this is a US based organisation, and I understand the concept of “World Series” that only consist of North American franchises is what US fills US Channels. But the World of Sport outside the US has moved on dramatically over the last three decades.
    Here in the UK the old Football (soccer) League was happy to plod along and then suddenly the major clubs broke away and set up the English Premier League – creating a flood of change across not just the UK but football (soccer) as a whole and led to wealth creation a that means today 3 of the four highest paid sport stars on the planet play football. And has the old organisation suffered? Initially there was uproar, and complaint yet today it too has record crowds, bumper income and sits as a feeder to the EPL.
    It has happened in Cricket too with players increasing their wages 10-100 fold. Even Darts has changed and made the top players millionaires – You see it across the sporting spectrum – all massively increasing the wealth of the players though breakaway organisations or the threat of a breakaway.

    The PGA will survive, but LIV is good for the global game. It will attract new audiences, and I suspect ultimately focus more on the Team League concept that the individual player tournament, leaving their team players the “Messi’s” of the links free to play in PGA, DP Tour, Australian, Sunshine Tour events outside of the Team season – everyone wins.

  15. Alan
    Thank you for joining the Firepit Collective. I feel that you and Michael Bamberger are the two best golf writers on the planet currently and the podcasts with Geoff Ogilvy are great. You seem to be the writer with the best info and takes on the Liv Golf fiasco. I have two questions on that subject. The PGA Tour claim that the Saudis are unfairly competing because they have so much money that they don’t care if they make a profit or not. However, isn’t the PGA Tour a non profit organization so they do not need to make a profit either. Obviously they can make the money they need to pay all the expenses incurred ie the huge salaries to the executives etc and accumulate reserves as evidenced by the huge amounts they are pulling out to hand out to the players due to the liv threat. Now the tour players will be able to join the football, basketball and baseball players as some of the most overpaid humans on the planet. I believe these changes will almost inevitably ruin thr PGA Tour. If the Saudis believe their ” sports washing” will make the world love them and eliminate their pariah status, they are mistaken. Hitler put on the 1936 Olympics and it only made the world more cared of him. Mainly only the Germans were thrilled by it.
    Thanks to everyone at the collective for turning out the most thoughtful and incisive golf writing now available today.
    James Stilwell

  16. Would imagine everyone here giving their thoughts and opinions feels very strongly about the game of golf. We all LOVE the history…the legends…the tradition. Some may say it’s a “niche sport”. Is NASCAR a “niche sport”? If we’re not talking the BIG 4 then is everything else secondary? None of us believe that…nor should we. There’s a big, wide world out their beyond our shores, and they LOVE golf as much as we do.
    That’s why it’s so sad that we have to be at each other’s throats. The world should be big enough for multiple tours. Oh…right…we already have multiple tours. So we can’t have one more.
    Let’s be real…Saudi money finances the PGAT, the Asian Tour, and very likely a big part of the DP Tour and the Australian Tour. So we have Mr. Monahan having a hissy fit because his mentor, Mr. Finchem, never got along with Greg Norman. Excuse me, Jay…it’s your responsibility to guide “the Tour” forward…not to buy into old and bitter quarrels that preceded your tenure as its steward. Look forward please…not backwards towards bad blood from years gone by.
    Cheers !

  17. Let’s remember a couple of points. 1) Players are defecting to LIV not because of 54-holes, shotgun starts or team play; it’s the MONEY, okay? Winning a LIV event means no prestige, no legacy, no name on the trophy alongside Woods, Palmer, Nicklaus, Hogan or Snead. 2) All this “whataboutism” is totally pointless. Pointing out that FedEx does business in Saudi Arabia is an argument built on toothpicks. We can name DOZENS of U.S. companies who deal with MBS and his cronies because they’re in BUSINESS…. it’s what they do. The bottom line for me is this: I can forget about the signing bonuses, the laughable format and puerile clown of a “commissioner.” What I cannot ignore is this: do you want professional golf owned and operated by a FOREGN GOVERNMENT? And one with a skeezy human rights reputation at that? Think of it another way….. What if the government of Scotland decided to devote every single dollar of their GNP to a takeover of professional golf? “We are where the game began and now we’re going to run it. Nine figure signing bonuses to everyone in the top 30! The PGA Tour? Screw you.” Obviously, the outcry would be deafening. And the creeps who run Saudi Arabia are already so much worse. LIV golf pro’s? Pawns……every last one of them.

    P.S. Mickelson grew up on the same course that I did in San Diego. (The former Stardust C.C. in Mission Valley.) Screw him.

    1. Pawns, maybe. But I was at LIV Boston and it felt like a Tour event, but much more fun. And definitely a younger crowd. Appeals to a new demographic. The PGA Tour could have done this but they didn’t.

      Whether you like LIV or not depends on what kind of sports fan you are. I’m not the type who lives and dies by whether my team wins. I’m in Boston, and I don’t hate the Yankees or New York fans. Some people are ready to fight when the Yankees are in town. So LIV is about golf and playing for birdies. These guys are playing the same game as Tour events. Bomb the drive, hit the second close, putt for birdie. There isn’t much difference there. The difference is there is great music playing, plenty of refreshments, a party atmosphere, food, etc. It’s amazing.

  18. To borrow (steal) from the late, great SI writer Frank Deford’s opinion of professional soccer: LIV golf is the sport of the future and always will be.

  19. Per their Dec, 31 2019 non-profit tax return filing, the PGA Tour had $1.2 billion in retained earnings, $1.7 billion in publicly traded securities and a $585 million investment in “PGA Holdings Inc. & subs.” It would be interesting to know what is in the holding company. You can make an argument they want to keep reserves available equivalent to one year of operating expenses ($1.4 billion) but that is a large sum of money tucked aside. PGA filing here:
    https://projects.propublica.org/nonprofits/organizations/520999206/202023219349309777/full

  20. 1. Phil (the book) made me more of a Phil fan.

    2. Have a great Phil story from yesterday at LIV Boston. Actually, two stories.

    3. Speaking of LIV Boston, i have some observations you might be interested in as you compile info for the book. Let me know. It was great, by the way. Really fun day.

  21. Alan
    It occurs to me that the players who remain on the PGA Tour should be sending the LIV rebels bottles of good wine or at least thanking them rather than criticizing or attacking them. Thanks to LIV the players still on the tour are getting huge increases in the purses, $100 million in the PIP program with Bryson, Cam Smith and DJ no longer eligible. New spots will be open on the Ryder Cup and Presidents Cup which Bryson and DJ would have had, and getting rid of a lot of other tournament winners which they no longer have to beat. Huge purse increases are coming in the $20 million no cut tournaments which probably never would have occurred without LIV. The Tour apparently plans to help players make additional money form their own name, images and likenesses. For the new players qualifying to play the PGA tour I believe they will be getting financial help with their expenses which was non-existent before and should really help prevent them from dropping off the tour if they don”t start winning prize money right away. It seems that the up and coming players and journeymen should be very grateful to every good player who goes to LIV.

    James Stilwell

  22. Professional golfers are not paid. They receive a share of the money that they generated, What I have not seen anybody explain is why all the hangers on like Monahan should get such a huge chunk of the money that the golfers generate. Monahan was paid over $12 million for 2020. That does not include being given his own private jet for business and PLEASURE use. #1 on the PGA money list is Scottie Scheffler at $14 million. Cameron Smith is #2 at $10 million. No wonder Cam left!

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