Phil Mickelson

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.”

princes and the pawn

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.

14 thoughts on “The Princes and the Pawn”

  1. Media Pawns
    I watched LIV golf, it was interesting and I look forward to seeing where it leads. I also like the PGA. However, the PGA has consistently behaved in an arrogant manner whenever there are ideas of change or competition to it’s clear monopoly of professional golf. I don’t see any media types grilling Jay Monahan over his handling of these issues (or predecessors), Monahan was interviewed by CBS at the RBC and he was seething and could barely contain his rage. His arrogance was palpable.
    I consider myself a patriot, love America and defend its honor. That said, there isn’t one country on planet earth that can claim moral purity. The Saudi human rights record is indefensible but so is that of China. The CEO of Nike has stated the company is “of China and for China”. The human rights abuses in China are too long and horrific to list and yet the biggest names in sports take money from Nike, including Rory and LeBron just to name a few. Why, no questions to these athletes for taking Big Money from a company that is unapologetic about its dealings with one of the most egregious human rights abusers on the planet?
    I’m guessing there’s no hard journalism on these issues because you don’t want to be cast out of the inner circle for violating the good guy rules.
    Who’s the Pawn?
    BTW-golf is a sport but it’s also a “JOB” and people change companies over compensation Every Single Day!

    1. Yes, 100% Kevin, and as follow up, I’ve heard nothing from these liberal hacks who have made their reputations and big $$$ from working decades for SI, Golf Digest, etc., then choose to go out on their own after achieving notoriety. Tour players earn zero until they complete 72 holes per event. The hypocrisy is astounding.

      1. Liberal? Where is the evidence of that?
        Hacks? Such a statement immediately makes you a commenter not worthy of being dealt with seriously.

  2. Kevin, before you make statements you should get the correct facts. The LIV exhibitions are totally financed by the Saudis’, Nike in China is supporting the China economy – providing Jobs for the “workers who work in the Nike Factories. Nike is not paid by the China Govt. Do you see the distinction here? Using whataboutism to excuse poor choices of the PGA Tour defectors is flawed. We all are intimately aware of the Saudis atrocities, remember 9/11, no one should ever forget that happening.
    .

    1. So hosting the Olympics in China isn’t sports washing?? Tell that to the 100 million Falun Gong, imprisoned and organ harvested. Give me a freaking break.

  3. GoodWalk Spoiled

    Phil got a $200 million signing bonus. Daddy didn’t raise no fool. Professional golf is a business. The players are independent contractors who pursue economic opportunity. It’s hilarious to watch the Golf Channel commentators acting like Church Lady – bashing Phil in their high and mighty, holier than thou scornful tone. Accusing him of supporting a regime notorious for human rights violations. Now that’s hysterical. Have I got news for them. Every time you fill up your gas tank, step on a bus, or fly in an airplane you are supporting the very same regime. The USA has turned a blind eye to Saudi Arabia for nearly a century. Why? Economics. Oil. Black Gold. Texas Tea. Me thinks those pundits are jealous. And scared. Green with envy. Well, money talks and B.S. walks. More power to Phil and all the LIV players. Golf needs to evolve. It’s too staid and boring in its present form. LIV brings excitement. Especially the team play aspect – an exciting tournament within. More and more players will be signing on. The momentum is rising.

  4. Great article and podcast.

    Obviously Phil learned another lesson from Tiger. Tiger never shaved for events he didn’t take seriously. I wouldn’t be impressed if my star employee, promoting our new tour showed up like he had been camping for four months and finishes T33.

    It’s so obvious Phil needed the money. Nobody says I’m trying to be a better person for the people around me and then signs on with the Saudis and starts the collapse of the PGA tour. His kids must be really proud of dad (“great daddy we get the private jet back”). Nothing Phil has done make’s anything better except his cash flow. There is a big difference from net worth and cash.

    I get that most of the headliners are fine never doing a sponsor’s corporate event and playing as few events as possible. Most peoples dream job is getting paid not to work, but how good is the golf going to be? There is very little motivation for these superstars to practice and prepare for a tournament. 48 players made up of old guys past their primes and young guys looking to catch lightning in a bottle. I know I’d be practicing my ass off if I knew I was going up against Scottie, Jon, Justin, Rory, Colin, Brooks and Cameron. Not too worried about Charl and Hennie.

    What do these greedy bastards think are going to happen to the PGA tour events and the communities and charities that go up against their exhibitions? There are many charities and communities that are going to suffer. No problem to Bryson, Phil and Dustin because they get paid first.

    This is not good for the game of golf and it’s not going to end well.

  5. Michael,
    i love your articles and writing style, always have ever since reading “The Green Road Home, a caddies memoir”. But…Please…let go of your disdain for Trump. Just leave him out of your writing. There is no real need to mention him in this article, there are other golf courses hosting LIV events. Other former presidents, Democrat and Republican, have done business with the Saudis. And by the way, Trump didn’t exactly get the traditional “transition of power” either. Trump got a two year investigation by a crooked FBI and biased Special consul, and impeached, all from a fake Russian dossier (paid for by Hillary’s campaign). You brought him up first.

  6. To all who use “ look at all the other abuses from countries” and “going for the money is what we all do – I will leave you with this.

    Just because everyone does something doesn’t make it right. Most of us deal with this when we are children and again as parents -as children we use the concept and as parents we try to teach away from the concept – “ hey Mom and Dad everyone else does it”.

    Evil happens when good people do nothing. Evil is gaining lot of ground in this world lately and primarily it is because the concept – “everyone else is doing it “ is now an acceptable excuse for aberrant behavior and it is causing much harm to the concept of humanity.

    God help us all. And as one man said as he died a horrible and violent death – “please forgive them for they know don’t what they do”.

    I think we are there again. We should forgive but we must all work to be better individually.

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