The Truth About Phil Mickelson and Saudi Arabia
What does Phil Mickelson want? The answers are contained in a new book about the vexing superstar
By Alan Shipnuck
February 17, 2022
As the Saudi Golf League threatens to create a new world order for professional golf, one of the biggest questions in the game can be boiled down to three words: Whither Phil Mickelson? Mercurial, strident, Machiavellian, the 51-year-old Hall of Famer is, as has often been the case, engulfed in controversy. Mickelson has refrained from saying anything of substance publicly about the upstart SGL, but his involvement in the birth of the tour is much more extensive than has been previously known; he laid out the details for me in a long phone call last November, as I was putting the finishing touches on my forthcoming book Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar. Knowing that in the course of my reporting I had conducted (nearly 200) interviews with both his critics and supporters, Mickelson couldn’t resist trying to peddle influence regarding one of the most polarizing chapters in a quarrelsome career.
Mickelson told me he had enlisted three other “top players” he declined to name and that they paid for attorneys to write the SGL’s operating agreement, codifying that the players would have control of all the details. He didn’t pretend to be excited about hitching his fortunes to Saudi Arabia, admitting the SGL was nothing more than what he called “sportswashing” by a brutally repressive regime. “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” he said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
Indeed, Monahan has treated the SGL as an existential threat, warning that any player who signs on with the competition would be banned for life by the PGA Tour. (This is a legally dubious position but reflects Monahan’s siege mentality.) The Tour quickly began pumping money to the players to try to blunt the Saudi incursion, jacking up the 2021 Players Championship purse to $15 million and introducing the $40 million Player Impact Program, which was billed as a bonus pool for the pros who best engaged with fans through social media. The Tour has alluded to shadowy algorithms and metrics but refuses to make public how the money is being distributed, leaving no doubt it is merely a slush fund for Monahan to try to buy the loyalty of his superstars. The day after Mickelson called me, word leaked about the Tour’s continued efforts to purchase its players’ happiness: For 2022, the PIP has been raised to $50 million; the FedEx Cup bonus pool has increased from $60 million to $75 million; two spurious season-long bonus programs will hand out $20 million more; and tournament purses are increasing by $60 million to $427 million, with the Players Championship payout rising to $20 million. That’s double what the Tour doled out for its flagship event in 2014, and in 2018 the purse was only $11 million.
Mickelson’s gambit with the Saudis had clearly worked, to the benefit of all, but even with the influx of so much funny money he remains unsatisfied. In his mind, two larger battles remain: the players taking possession of their media rights and a wholesale restructuring of how the players are governed. The Tour’s hard-line policy has long been that it absolutely owns the media rights to its members, in perpetuity. So, for example, Turner Sports had to pay the Tour a $1 million licensing fee each of the times Phil has teed it up in an iteration of The Match, though Mickelson himself has made upwards of $15 million from the franchise. “I don’t want to say it’s infuriating, but it is definitely more than frustrating,” he said of having to pay the rights fee. A bigger deal is that the players don’t own the highlights of their own shots. Each of these moments potentially could be turned into an NFT and sold to fans or collectors. (Over the last year more than $600 million of NBA NFTs have been sold, with the 5 percent transaction fees being split evenly among every player in the league; numerous NFTs of NBA players have sold for prices in the six figures.) “The Tour is sitting on multiple billions of dollars worth of NFTs,” Mickelson said during our chat. “They are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of digital content we could be using for our social media feeds. The players need to own all of that. We played those shots, we created those moments, we should be the ones to profit. The Tour doesn’t need that money. They are already sitting on an $800 million cash stockpile. How do you think they’re funding the PIP? Or investing $200 million in the European Tour? The Tour is supposed to be a nonprofit that distributes money to charity. How the fuck is it legal for them to have that much cash on hand? The answer is, it’s not. But they always want more and more. They have to control everything. Their ego won’t allow them to make the concessions they need to.” Just before Christmas 2021—a month after Mickelson uttered those words—an internal memo leaked with the news the PGA Tour was creating an NFT platform for its players to provide them a source of “long-term, incremental revenue.” Once again, Mickelson’s brinkmanship had worked.
But are his grievances fueled by money or principle? With Mickelson, you can never be sure. Given the massive scale of his gambling losses—detailed elsewhere in the book, which, as it happens, can be preordered here—the Saudi seduction might be born of necessity. Mickelson, whose $94 million in career PGA Tour earnings is second only to that of Tiger Woods, raised eyebrows when he sold his Gulfstream in 2019. “He loved that plane so much it was like his fourth child,” says someone very close to Mickelson. “I was absolutely shocked that he sold it. The only reason I could possibly imagine him doing that was him feeling serious financial pressure.” Phil and his wife, Amy, have purchased land on Jupiter Island, in Florida, and have been interviewing architects; Phil may yet get the haven from state income tax he has long lusted after. “I was interviewing him one time,” says writer John Feinstein, “and he said, apropos of nothing, ‘You always think of me as a right-winger, but I’m actually pretty liberal on social issues like abortion.’ I said, ‘But your number one issue is taxes.’ He said, ‘No, no, no, my number one, two, three, four, and five issues are taxes.’”
But Mickelson’s second outstanding issue with the Tour has nothing to do with money. It’s about control. “The Tour likes to pretend it’s a democracy, but it’s really a dictatorship,” he told me. “They divide and conquer. The concerns of the top players are very different from the guys who are lower down on the money list, but there’s a lot more of them. They use the top guys to make their own situation better, but the top guys don’t have a say.” Players are a minority on the all-powerful PGA Tour Policy Board, holding only four of the nine seats, with the other five being filled by luminaries of the business world who, by age and experience, have more in common with the commissioner than the jocks. Mickelson’s idea for governance is, he says, based on the U.S. Congress: The Tour’s vast middle class would be like the House, voting on ideas that would then be rejected or tweaked and ultimately ratified by a much smaller Senate-like body composed of the game’s biggest stars. “That way nothing will get done without the approval of both sides,” Mickelson says. It is an idealistic vision.
Phil claims to have spent at least a dozen hours on the phone talking through these issues with Monahan, but found him to be unresponsive. He now has a kindred spirit in Greg Norman, who is overseeing the SGL in his role as the CEO of LIV Golf Investments, which is funded by Saudi oil. “We respect each other’s point of view,” Norman told me. “We understand market value and that the [PGA] Tour works for us, we don’t work for the Tour. Phil asks tough questions. He’s not here to placate anybody. He’s got a mind of his own and his own opinions, which can be incredibly strong and poignant.”
On issues of name-image-likeness, the SGL policies will be far more favorable to the players than what they are getting with the PGA Tour, opening up another massive revenue stream in addition to the guaranteed dough that comes with playing for the SGL.
Mickelson has a compulsive need to be seen as the smartest guy in the room. Not once did he say our conversation was off-the-record or on background or just between us or anything remotely like that. He simply opened a vein. Even knowing he came armed with an agenda, I was amazed by his bluntness. As always, he remains a wild card. Is the House of Saud’s long money seductive? Obviously. But for Mickelson, the Saudi question is about being right as much as anything else. Is he really ready to try and blow up the PGA Tour if he doesn’t get his way?
“I know 20 guys who want to do this,” he said about the SGL, “and if the Tour doesn’t do the right thing, there is a high likelihood it’s going to happen.”
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 has received 11 first-place awards in the annual writing contest conducted by the Golf Writers Association of America, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame.