Fire Pit Collective
Inside the bombshell Phil Mickelson interview
This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
Do you think we’ll see Phil at the Masters? And what do you think the fan support will be? @kbgowing
Yes, I think that will be his first tournament back, an eerie throwback to Tiger Woods in 2010. Augusta National is the perfect place for a golfer engulfed in scandal to return to public life. It’s a highly controlled environment, with members of the print media forced to be on their best behavior and the broadcasters compelled to speak in feel-good pablum. Mickelson can hide out in the champion’s locker room as much as he needs. It’s also a course and a club that Phil loves and where he feels comfortable. I think he will get a rapturous reception (provided he doesn’t enlist with the Saudis between now and then). Sports fans love a comeback and a redemption story. In recent years Mickelson had become something of a cartoon character, preening about his calves and “hellacious seeds” and all that jazz. A more humble and human Phil will be wildly popular.
Do you feel any guilt that Phil’s sponsors are dropping him? @adamkommers
That’s not the right word, but I’m certainly stunned at how quickly they all jumped ship. Part of that is a measure of the Saudis’ toxicity. As I reported in last week’s #Ask, Workday had already decided not to renew Mickelson’s contract even before my book excerpt dropped. Mickelson has become increasingly strident and outspoken; his “obnoxious greed” comments to John Huggan from the Saudi International certainly did not play well in the halls of KPMG and Callaway, which have relationships with the Tour that are much bigger than just one endorser, even if he’s a Hall of Famer.
At the same time, Nike stood by Tiger Woods as he went through the tawdriest sex scandal of the Internet age, and then again after his addled mugshot and dash cam video went around the world. (Of course, Woods’s problems, including with women, are rooted in addiction, which makes him more relatable and sympathetic than a rich dude scheming to get even richer.) Mickelson’s sponsors had been remarkably resilient through his myriad controversies. I mean, the guy was mixed up in a nasty insider trading case and KPMG, a financial services company (!), still kept him on the payroll. He savaged a proud champion in Tom Watson in front of the world at Gleneagles and no sponsors blinked. Mickelson tarnished himself and the national championship by playing tennis on the 13th green at Shinnecock Hills and yet the checks from corporate America kept rolling in. Yes, his comments to me made Mickelson sound greedy and conniving and tone-deaf and morally bankrupt, but he had previously wiggled out of so many jams it never occurred to me he wouldn’t do it yet again.
It has certainly been hard to watch his downward spiral. I’m not by any means dancing on Mickelson’s grave. This time of reflection evokes Dustin Johnson’s leave of absence in 2014; DJ came back a better player and person and I wish the same for Mickelson. It has been uncomfortable for me to be at the center of this story. I knew there would be blowback but my job is to enlighten golf fans. The professional game is at a crucial crossroads; all of this time, the key questions surrounding the Saudi seduction have been, What does Phil want? What is in his heart and his head? It was a mystery to everyone but me. With the SGL on the verge of being publicly announced, it didn’t feel right to bury Mickelson’s true feelings in the book for three more months, Woodward-style. So I feel no guilt. It is not my job to do Mickelson’s bidding, or the Tour’s, or Saudi Arabia’s. My only duty is to tell it like it is.
On a scale of 1-10 how much more explosive info is in the book? @JefSommer
8.5? There’s a lot in there, but I don’t want to give the impression that this is just an exposé. I have always enjoyed covering Mickelson and this book was written with a lot of affection. There are so many funny and ridiculous and outrageous stories about the guy. I celebrate his large-scale philanthropy and random acts of kindness and generous mentorship toward young players. I bring to life his most thrilling victories. But he’s been involved in a lot of messiness, too, and it’s all in there. That’s why I think it is a balanced and fair look at a very complex person. For the smattering of Twitter trolls who have accused me of trying to “ruin” Mickelson, I will just say that I am in possession of some incredibly damaging information about Phil that I have elected not to put in the book because it is highly personal and would cause pain to too many people. It would have been by far the most explosive material in the whole manuscript. Saudi Arabia, insider trading, Billy Walters, the bust-up with Bones, throwing Tom Watson under a Greyhound, gambling debts, the cold war with the USGA…all of this has played out in public. I’ve just dug deeper and gotten the real story behind all of it. But some things are intensely personal and I’ve respected that.
There is one story in the book about Mickelson gambling during tournament rounds on the PGA Tour but it’s a cute tale and should not sound any alarm bells. On the subject of betting, I was told one incendiary story that would have made international headlines but the person directly involved was speaking to me off-the-record and, since I always honor those agreements, it’s not in the book.
#askalan United Arab Emirates (Dubai, Abu Dhabi) are the main sponsor of the European Tour. They abstained in the vote on a UN resolution condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Saudi Arabia is certainly toxic, but UAE also violates some fundamental human rights. Double standard? @YCochennec
Clearly. This was Mickelson’s fatal miscalculation in bragging about his secret dealings with the Saudi: he underestimated the selective outrage that would come with brutal honesty. Professional golfers take tons of money from oppressive regimes—not only the UAE and Saudi Arabia but China as well. But all of these players ritualistically talk about “growing the game” and speak in other established code so they get away with it. Phil was simply too blunt.
Alan, if Phil really wanted change in the PGA Tour, why didn’t he pursue more traditional routes like kicking Jay Monahan out and/or organizing the players to unionize? @ThomasJFerris
Where’s the fun in that? There have been rumblings through the years about a players union on Tour but it’s never had much traction. Trying to organize that would have been an effort in frustration, and having to cut game-changing deals through a union would be a political morass. Even if Mickelson could have somehow found a way to oust Monahan that would still not have changed the fundamental structure of professional golf. With the Saudis providing the leverage, Phil saw a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity and he plunged in.
The book goes to the printers next week. At that point, what’s done is done, and I was already thinking I’d reach out to Phil. If he wants, we can have a chat; this time, we can go off-the-record and perhaps clear the air on a few things. I’ll be at Augusta National, Southern Hills, Brookline and the Old Course. Presumably he will, too. It would probably make it easier for both of us to do our jobs if before those important events we can talk out a few things. So, I’ll extend the olive branch. I doubt he’ll take me up on the offer but Mickelson is so mercurial ya never know.