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Phil the Thrill, and His Next Move?

A little over a year ago, I was on Kiawah Island in South Carolina at the Ocean Course for the PGA Championship, watching Phil Mickelson, a month shy of his 51st birthday, pull off the most magical win. Mickelson navigated the brutally challenging layout, utilizing brilliant shot-making and uncanny focus, to become the oldest guy ever to win a Major. Hundreds of fans swarmed the 18th hole to cheer on “Phil the Thrill,” the most compelling figure in the game, as he shot rounds of 70-69-70-73, to beat Brooks Koepka and Louis Oosthuizen by two shots. It was his 6th Major title, and his first Major title since he won his one and only (British) Open Championship in 2013.

If Mickelson wasn’t popular enough before that improbable Sunday; afterwards, his star power went through the roof! He was hailed throughout the world as the “Man of the Ages” — his genius and longevity compared to that of other ageless stars including Tom Brady and Roger Federer.

Fast forward a year and Phil Mickelson’s fall from grace has taken on meteoric proportions, caused by fallout from controversial comments he made to Alan Shipnuck last November, the author of the newly released book, Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.

And Mickelson is not here at Southern Hills Country Club in Tulsa, Oklahoma, this week, home of the 2022 PGA Championship, as he withdrew last Friday, and will not attempt to defend his PGA Championship title. He has not played a PGA Tour event since January. His last competition was the Saudi International in early February. And he’s basically disappeared from the public eye since his comments went public in February.

Mickelson’s gripes included criticizing the PGA Tour for the Tour’s “obnoxious greed,” and he said that despite the atrocities taking place in Saudi Arabia, calling the Saudis “scary motherf—ers,” he and his lawyers wrote the League’s operating agreement and that his involvement is an effort to use it as leverage to get more for the players on the PGA Tour.

The Saudi golf league, now called LIV Golf, led by Greg Norman, and backed by Saudi Arabian investments, is boasting the largest prize purses in golf and “doing things differently with smaller fields, fewer rounds, a defined season, shorter playing windows and shotgun starts …” according to their website. Their first event is June 9–11 at Centurion Club, outside of London, with stops at other international venues, and at several courses in the U.S., throughout the year.

The backlash from Mickelson’s comments included several of his sponsors dumping him.

On February 22, Mickelson issued an apology for his “reckless comments,” saying he was “deeply sorry for my choice of words …” He said, “There is the problem of off-record comments being shared out of context and without my consent …” adding that “my intent was never to hurt anyone, and I’m so sorry to the people I have negatively impacted. … The past 10 years I have felt the pressure and stress slowly affecting me at a deeper level. I desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love and work on being the man I want to be.”

Shipnuck insisted that their conversation was not “off the record.”

“Saudi Arabia has successfully bought its way into professional golf,” Shipnuck stated on my Sunday morning “Talking Golf” show on WFAN-NY. “They host an event every year that is sanctioned by the European Tour. They are now in partnership with the Asian Tour. The Saudis have bought their way into the game for better or for worse. And everyone takes their money, including Phil. He is one of a bunch of top players who go over there in late January and early February to play the Saudi International. And it’s become accepted. And the insidious thing about sports washing, is that it works. I’m honestly surprised at the amount of blowback on Phil. It seemed obvious to me on what he was doing — he was working both sides of the street and trying to pit the Saudis against the PGA Tour and using that leverage against each side. But the reason I think it touched such a nerve is that he strayed off script. Usually when these guys go over there and take the money, they say, ‘We’re just trying to grow the game; I’m an athlete, not a politician.’ Everybody rolls their eyes, but you can only express your moral outrage so often, and so they kind of get a pass. But Phil was so blunt, and he said the quiet parts out loud and that was what was provocative. And he was so callous in dismissing the Saudi atrocities.

“But I think, ultimately,” Shipnuck continues, “it was the sneakiness that got him in trouble as he admitted to me that he had a role in the creation of the actual operating agreement of the Saudi Golf League, and that’s directly working against the interest of the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour has been an amazing platform for him to earn worldwide acclaim, obviously quite a great living … all that said, I was still surprised that it blew up the way it did because the Saudis are part of golf now, but Phil just took it to a whole different level.”

The PGA Tour has adamantly opposed this “rival league” and has said from the beginning that any PGA Tour members who play in their events would be banned from the PGA Tour. And on May 11, the PGA Tour denied waiver requests to players, including Mickelson, Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia and Robert Garrigus, among others, who are seeking to play in the first LIV Golf Invitational Series tournament.

Mickelson has been the epitome of contradictions his entire life. And covering his professional career from the beginning, I’ve seen it first-hand, from his most idiotic move on the 13th green at the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock, where he ran to his ball and hit it while it was moving, to throwing 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Tom Watson under the bus, criticizing his captaincy after the USA Team got beat by the Europeans. I’ve witnessed Mickelson’s heart-breaking six runner-up finishes at U.S. Opens, his three Masters titles, including winning his very first Major title at Augusta National in 2004, his two PGA Championship titles, his Open Championship win and many of his 45 PGA Tour titles.

I’ve always liked Mickelson and have always thought he’s good for the game. He takes time to sign autographs for fans. He shows random acts of kindness to those less fortunate. He and his wife Amy are very charitable. There’s a reason he’s a fan favorite. He works hard at it.

His interviews and press conferences are usually the most fascinating, because of his opinions, analysis and quick wit. And his brilliant short game, creative genius on the course, and his no-holding-back, instinctive playing style is fun to watch, albeit heartbreaking at times.

All golf fans have seen the many sides of Phil Mickelson — the good, the bad and the ugly.

Tiger transformed his tarnished image, and I truly hope Mickelson can do the same. Hopefully, he’ll use his smarts and good judgement, not compulsive and impulsive behavior, and rebuild his image and legacy.

Ann Liguori is a trailblazer in sports broadcasting. You can hear her “Talking Golf” show on Sundays, 7–8 a.m., on WFAN-NY, her “Sports Innerview” show on Saturdays, 7–8 a.m. on WLIW 88.3 FM, and her weekly podcasts on SI Golf/Morning Read. For more information on Liguori, visit annliguori.com.

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