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Phil's Return

PGA Championship 2022: Why fans always forgive and forget with Phil Mickelson

Jamie Squire

May 12, 2022

When and where Phil Mickelson will end his sabbatical from golf—next month at the first LIV Golf event or elsewhere after news that he'd withdrawn from next week's PGA Championship—remains unknown. How he will be received when he returns is not.

Should there be any doubt one only needs to remember the warm reception Mickelson received in Detroit last summer after he feuded with the media and threatened never to return to the city following the revelation of Mickelson’s ties to a mobster. Or the Sunday at Shinnecock in 2018, the day after he hit a moving ball in an act of petulance, defiance and defeat. Or the welcomes after insider trading scandals … and throwing two Ryder Cup captains under the bus … and the number of other gaffes—including a prescient 2019 moment when he told fans “You do you, I’m gonna do me” regarding his first dalliance with the Saudis—encountered in his three-decade career.

The question isn’t if Mickelson is still beloved by golf fans … but why?

“I think there is a je ne sais quoi about what resonates with us about certain people,” says Dr. Sam Sommers, professor and chair in the department of psychology at Tufts University and author of This is Your Brain on Sports. “I like the cut of his jib, there’s something about the way that this guy carries himself, how they compete, how they celebrate, how they interact with fans and their fellow competitors, even nonverbally the way we see these individuals. It can be hard for us to articulate what draws us to certain players.”

Or, as Dr. Brendan Dwyer, the director of research at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Center for Sport Leadership, explains: “I like to refer to sports fans as predictably irrational.”

How Mickelson has earned such a following is self-evident. He was a generational talent who played with bravado but looked like your neighbor in charge of the cul-de-sac scavenger hunt. At a time when Tiger Woods kept a wall between himself and galleries, Mickelson embraced them with every step. They, in turn, fell into his gravitational pull. When Mickelson failed, he did so in ways that made him so human it hurt, perpeturating his everyman persona. Yes, there have always been whispers around Mickelson, that the smiling guy on TV was not the same guy when the cameras were off; one does not earn the nickname “FIGJAM” from his peers in reverence. But to the masses, those whispers mostly faded, replaced by a patina gained with age and continued relevancy. As he got older, Phil leaned into the dad humor appropriate for his age, becoming everyone's lovable, goofy uncle. Just as importantly, in a sport that now caters to the young, Mickelson valiantly fought time and managed to come out on top. His win at Kiawah Island at 50 should have granted an eternal victory lap.

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That is all well and good and possibly still true. Conversely, this is golf, a game that pounds its chest about virtue, where even the hint of impropriety can leave a permanent mark. There was nothing virtuous about Mickelson admitting that in working with Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf he was partnering with “scary mother****ers”—folks that Mickelson acknowledged “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”—simply to leverage the PGA Tour for financial gain. Players have seen their reputations forever ruined for transgressions far less severe and far less numbered than what Mickelson has done.

So how does Phil continue to be “PHIL!” to the many that stand by him?

Dr. Sommers and Dr. Dwyer are two of the leading authorities on sports-fan behavior and thus the perfect men to help decipher this phenomenon. For starters, there needs to be an understanding that some people simply have Teflon reputations. That the zealous devotion they conjure, one that blissfully or purposefully ignores anything that goes against its creed, is not singular to Mickelson.

“You see this in politics, right? The dyed-in-the-wool Republican will probably overlook certain behaviors from Republican candidates or elected officials that they wouldn't if it were a Democrat, and the dyed-in-the-wool Democratic voter will overlook certain foibles and missteps among Democratic politicians that they wouldn't for Republicans,” Dr. Sommers says. “Our affiliation shapes the way we see the world.”

Trying to explain the fealty from an individual to a celebrity or organization is difficult because it varies with the individual in question. It can be as simple as brand preference. “Just like it is hard to give up our favorite type of coffee, it is hard to shut off your relationship with your favorite athlete without really bad behavior,” Dr. Dwyer explains. Moreover, there is a certain latitude granted for off-the-field failures to those who find on-the-field success, and few can rival what Mickelson has accomplished in the game. “Think of some of the allegations, settlements and even criminal charges—think Michael Vick and Mike Tyson—that have occurred. But if a player performs well and wins, he/she will always be celebrated by fans,” Dr. Dwyer notes.

The sport needs to look no further than Woods as a reference point, a man who took a massive PR hit when his private life went public in 2009. “Tiger was given a tremendous amount of leeway to bounce back and become a comeback story, to still be a hero and a favorite even after that happened,” Dr. Sommers says. “These stories can be complicated.”

Slightly deeper than these surface-level explanations resides the fact that not all missteps are universally viewed or held in the same light. Mickelson’s backers look at his current mess and think his only mistake was saying the quiet part out loud. His hockey slap at a moving ball during the 2018 U.S. Open, deemed by some as juvenile, disrespectful and breaking the spirit of the rules, was judged by others as a hilarious moment and nothing more. His shots at Ryder Cup captains Tom Watson and Hal Sutton, Phil’s fans attest, were deserved. The insider-trading scandal? Hey, he paid a penalty, let’s move on.

“Some fans can justify behavior, some strangely will agree with behavior, and others will not have enough information to have a strong opinion; thus, these fans will behave as they always have,” Dr. Dwyer says.

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There can be aspects of gender, race, socioeconomic status and nation of origin when trying to explain why certain people seem to get away with anything. However, Dr. Sommers says, this bias generally comes back to pre-existing beliefs about a player. In this case, what fans originally thought about Mickelson stands despite evidence to the contrary.

“Once we form a first impression, it can be pretty powerful,” Dr. Sommers says. “So here you have Mickelson, who has this everyman persona, and that flies in the face of facts like his career earnings or that he flies around on a private jet. I mean, the comments about the Saudi government and concerns about human-rights abuses and treatment of journalists and alleged homicide. Why would you get in league with someone like that? ‘Well, because they have the leverage to finally let us shape the PGA Tour the way we want.’ Boy, talk about tone deaf, right?

“And yet still somehow, the narrative of Mickelson as the everyman sticks for a lot of people. So labels, narratives are sticky. We like stories. And we like to believe we understand a celebrity or an athlete and the kind of person they are.”

It should be noted this is mostly a distillation of the passionate fan, and not every person who attends a golf tournament falls into this category. Quite the opposite: A majority of those who go to tour events and major championships are casual observers. It’s likely this group has only a faint understanding or no idea at all about a fledgling circuit attempting to disrupt the sport. Should Mickelson play at Southern Hills or The Country Club in Brookline, these fans might not know Mickelson has spent the last three months in hiding. They know him as the lovable goof who wears aviators and dances in button-down shirts. That Phil is the People’s Champ. It is a title that lives in perpetuity, and it's a love LIV Golf is banking on for its American events to have any sort of fan traction considering every other marquee golfer—reportedly, at least—has bowed out of the operation.

Yes, Mickelson’s comments and reported actions in helping form the new Saudi-backed series have earned him new detractors. But whenever he returns from the shadows he will do so with a massive following. That may seem unexplainable to some. Conversely, it’s worth remembering that “fan” is short for “fanatic.”

“I don't think this is that unexplainable. What a fan does won't always make sense, but we can count on them to do it over and over again,” Dr. Dwyer says. “See Cleveland Browns fans. They come back every year thinking this might be the year.”

Dr. Sommers does point out that stories can change. That sometimes the individual does the one thing where there’s no return. Still, this is a forgiving culture, one that doesn’t even necessarily need contriteness to move on, but time. In the case of athletes, the bar is even lower, with renewed success, or simply a return, firmly putting the past in the past.

So there will be a catcall or two. Maybe a critical sign draped over the deck of a house adjoining the course and perhaps a jokester rents a Cessna to fly a “Scary Mother****ers” banner overhead. But whenever Mickelson returns, he will mostly be cheered, he’ll tip his cap down and raise his thumb up and fans will yell his name like nothing has changed. Because to them, nothing has.