The Princes and the Pawn
Phil Mickelson didn’t say much at his U.S. Open press conference, but his words revealed a lot
By Michael Bamberger
BROOKLINE, Mass. — Will Smith, Bagger Vance in that dripping-syrup golf movie, was having one of the biggest nights, and the biggest years, of his life. A bestselling memoir. A hit movie, King Richard. A Best Actor nomination for the title role and with it a front-row seat at the Academy Awards. It seems like years ago, but it was the last Sunday in March, at the Dolby Theater in Hollywood. A long and anxious night for Smith, waiting, he hoped, to hear his name.
Late in the proceedings, Chris Rock, from the stage, cracked a joke Smith’s wife didn’t like. We all know what happened next. The slap seen around the world.
Smith then returned to his seat, where he was approached by Denzel Washington, the acting god and the son of a Pentecostal minister. Washington got in Smith’s ear and said, “At your highest moment, be careful. That’s when the devil comes for you.”
Will Smith, one of the most famous and engaging people in the world, hasn’t been heard from since.
Enter Phil Mickelson, in this odd parable. Last year, Mickelson won the PGA Championship at age 50, the oldest winner of a Grand Slam event. To do it, he stared down a far younger player, Brooks Koepka. That was in May. In September he was the most popular U.S. team member at the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits, and he wasn’t even playing. As an assistant captain, Mickelson was huddling with the players, calling shots, dispensing advice. He and his beautiful wife, Amy, the former Phoenix Suns dancer, walked down fairways hand-in-hand. Phil could win on the senior tour in any moon phase, pretty much. His own Ryder Cup captaincies (plural) were coming. On Twitter, he routinely offered comical advice on how to hit bombs and get the girl. His potential as a TV golf analyst was immeasurable. He was at his highest moment.
In came LIV, with all that temptation. Phil took the money. He hasn’t been heard from since. Yes, I’m including his crowded 26-minute press conference at the U.S. Open on Monday afternoon when I say that. Phil looked great. He said nothing. Well, he did say one thing.
Doug Ferguson, AP golf writer: “Phil, what appeals to you about LIV Golf that you weren’t getting from the PGA Tour?”
Phil: “I think that there’s an obvious incredible financial commitment, but more than that — for all the players involved and everyone involved. But more than that, there are other factors. With fewer tournaments, it allows me to have more balance in my life. It allows me to do things that are off the golf course I’ve always wanted to do. I find that as I prioritize those that are important to me, people that are important to me going forward, this allows me to have more time with them, be more present, and to share more life experiences outside of golf.”
Other than that, Phil Mickelson, who for 30 or more years has been bursting with original opinions and theories and comic bits, had nothing meaningful to say about anything. He has become an especially high-priced pawn for the burgeoning Saudi golf interests. Pawns are not independently owned-and-operated chess pieces.
It’s easy to see why the Saudis have been drawn to golf, just as developers in Myrtle Beach were a half-century ago. Better living through golf? I’ve seen it in my own life. Forbes, the once-great financial magazine, bills itself as the “Capitalist Tool.” Well, golf is a capitalist’s tool too. The Saudis know it. They’re going to use it. They’re going to use it every which way to Sunday. The geo-political implications to this LIV Golf business are massive.
Before this inaugural LIV season is over, two of the eight events will be played on courses bearing the Trump name. Next year, there could be more, as Donald Trump has courses in Scotland he would love to promote. As the 45th president of the United States, Donald Trump wouldn’t even commit to a bedrock American principle, the peaceful transition of power. He was too much for even the PGA of America, a staid and conservative organization, which, in the wake of the Jan. 6 riots, moved this year’s PGA Championship from Trump Bedminster to Southern Hills.
Phil Mickelson is a politically astute person. He has deeply considered opinions about Trump as a golfing impresario and a national political figure. On Monday, when I asked Mickelson about playing tournament golf on courses bearing Trump’s name, he artfully played a card from Tiger’s deck. That is, he used a couple hundred words to say nothing. It’s his prerogative, of course. It’s also what the LIV people and its bankers would want him to do. Normalizing Trump is good for the Saudis. Trump’s a fossil-fuel guy. Wind and solar are not his thing.
An old-timey NBA scout once offered this insight into the human condition, and it’s a keeper: I don’t know what the question is, but the answer is money.
Back to Denzel. The Very Rev. Denzel Washington, wearing a tux and talking about the devil. Maybe, like a lot of modernists, the word is vague and weird to you, but greed is not. Most of us, at some point and in some way, have had an insatiable desire for more. It’s human nature. Phil, last week in London and on Monday at The Country Club, made a reference to his therapy. Not physical therapy. Therapy therapy. This is a new development. From what he has said, it relates to his gambling. Good for him. Good for anybody who is willing to face problems head on and have the courage to talk about them.
From Phil’s artfully delivered opening remarks:
“Well, I wanted to say that it’s nice to be back, nice to see you guys. It’s been four months. It’s been a necessary time and an opportunity for me to step away a little bit and put a little bit of thought and reflection into going forward and how to best prioritize things. It’s given me an opportunity to spend time with Amy, to spend time with loved ones, and continue some of the work therapy-wise on some of the deficiencies that I have certainly as well as focus on the best path forward.
“It’s been a positive time in that regard. I know that many people have strong opinions, emotions about my choice to go forward with LIV Golf. I understand, and I respect that. I’m incredibly grateful for the PGA Tour and the many opportunities it has provided me through the years, but I am excited about this new opportunity as well.”
By the way, Phil used the word respect 15 more times before he was through. That’s cool. He has a theme.
I’m screaming here: This is Phil’s life, to do with as he wishes. That’s true for any and all, of course. LIV Golf could mean the death of the PGA Tour as we have known it. OK. Death is part of life, and if I know Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth and Jay Monahan and the marketing department at FedEx, they will gather and find a way to reinvent the PGA Tour, learning from missteps and reassessing everything. A starting point would be to say a warm goodbye to anybody who decides to leave, and if the courts say you can’t kick them out, then you can’t kick them out. Rule of law.
This is an obituary for what has already been lost in this painful period for professional golf. It was so plain to see on Monday at The Country Club, when Phil had that first press conference of this 122nd U.S. Open, at this 140-year-old club. We gather here, dearly beloved, to mark the end of a chapter. Francis Ouimet won an Open here in 1913. He lived across the street. There’s a book about that Open: The Greatest Game Ever Played. Julius Boros won the 1963 U.S. Open here, in a playoff over Jacky Cupit and Arnold Palmer. For more than 50 years, Boros had the record as the oldest golfer to capture a major championship, as the winner of the 1968 PGA Championship at age 48, and then came Phil, who cites the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club as one of the great moments of his sui generis golf career. This isn’t just a string of facts. This is the thread of the game: Ouimet to Boros and Boros to Mickelson. Cupit is still alive. He’s 84. He grew up, per his Wikipedia page, “in the piney woods of East Texas.” Man, that’s some phrase. As for this paragraph, there’s not a nod to “financial commitment” in it. Professional golfers are, of course, drawn to money and purses and sponsorship deals, for every understandable reason. But I’ve never met a golf fan who is drawn to the game for any of that. I don’t know how much the winner of this year’s U.S. Open will receive. Whatever it is, he will have earned it. Golf’s hard.
Francis Ouimet didn’t have a payday. He won that national open as a 20-year-old amateur, and he never turned pro. Later, he went to work for Brown Brothers Harriman, the old-line investment bank. One day in the 1950s — this is how I have heard the story — Dwight Eisenhower called Ouimet, inviting him to come from Boston to Palm Springs for a golf game. Ouimet demurred. The airfare was too expensive, and he didn’t want to ask for a day off from work. No, no, no, Francis: Air Force One will pick you up, and your boss is happy to give you a vacation day. Francis and Ike teed it up.
Is this a great game or what? The people it draws and the stories that come out of it.
Regarding the money Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson and Kevin Na make from LIV Golf, I doubt it will make them happier.
Sheryl Crow has a protest song called “Gasoline” with references to a Saudi palace and Riyadh streets. This is the final stanza:
’Cause the money’s in the pipeline
And pipeline’s running dry
And we’ll be the last to recognize
Where there is shit there is always flies.
There’s more going on here than we could possibly know. But that doesn’t mean we should close our eyes and turn away. Anyway, the U.S. Open is being played this week. Our national open. Anybody can play his way in. His or her, actually. It’s an open. All you have to do is shoot the scores. Easier said than done. Golf’s hard. We wouldn’t want it any other way.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com
Alan Shipnuck, Michael Bamberger, and Ryan French share their thoughts immediately following Phil’s press conference.