Fire Pit Collective
Inside the Phil Mickelson firestorm from the man who sparked it
This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
I’ve thought about Phil Mickelson every single day for the last three months. What has he been doing with his time? What has he been feeling? Shame, regret, rage, humility, defiance … they have all been on the table. His void was felt acutely at the Masters, even if the timid CBS announcers never mentioned it. At the Champions Dinner, Gary Player offered a passionate defense of Mickelson, saying it was a travesty the three-time champion was not there to break bread. Under the famous oak tree behind the Augusta National clubhouse, rumors abounded. One had Mickelson hiding out in Montana, having grown a ZZ Top beard. Another had him sneaking into the Callaway Performance Center in California for a late-night practice session … sporting shoulder-length hair. One of the most enduringly popular golfers of the last three decades had become golf’s Yeti.
A recent video snippet of Mickelson playing a casual game at a private club near San Diego showed respectable hair, a decent beard and evidence he has not been adhering to his ballyhooed fasting regimen. But when will he return to public life? It will be in two weeks at the PGA Championship, or the first Saudi event in June or not until 2023, depending on which tea leaf you’re reading.
It is dizzying to imagine Mickelson not defending his title at the PGA, where a year ago he summoned a win for the ages. His improbable victory at age 50 seemed destined to be a joyous victory lap for a legendary career. But behind the scenes, he was already playing with fire by working with the Saudis in their bid to create a competitor to the PGA Tour, which for so long has provided Mickelson a grand stage on which to perform. In February, while collecting a bloated appearance fee to play in and promote the Saudi International, Mickelson opened a vein to John Huggan of Golf Digest, complaining about the tour’s “obnoxious greed,” among other things. His diffident words enraged colleagues and stirred considerable angst in the corporate headquarters of his endorsement partners.
A week later, an excerpt from my forthcoming biography about Mickelson appeared on FirePitCollective.com, in which he callously dismissed Saudi atrocities and admitted to sneaky dealings in helping them set up their rival tour. The blowback was so extreme that Mickelson immediately went into hiding. A day after the excerpt dropped, a member of his inner circle texted me of the tour, “Now they want to suspend Phil.” Four days later Mickelson released a non-apology apology, saying, “I know I have not been my best and desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.” Is he suspended or not? That is a matter of semantics.
I watched all of this unfold in a state of dismay. I knew his blunt comments about the Saudis and the tour would provoke controversy but never imagined they would send a beloved Hall of Famer into exile for months. A handful of the best golf minds I know had read the “Phil” manuscript, and none of them saw it coming either. Greg Norman recently made the preposterous claim in The Telegraph that I was in cahoots with the PGA Tour to drop the excerpt at the moment that would do maximum damage to the launch of the Saudi tour. I’ve had my own battles with the PGA Tour; the last thing I’m going to do is be its puppet. The reality is that the Saudi situation was coming to a boil in mid-February and one of the most freighted questions in professional golf was, What does Phil want? Among professional typists, only I knew, and it felt like malpractice to leave Mickelson’s role buried in the book for three more months, until its May 17 release. For those who were or remain upset about the timing of the excerpt, May 17 is Tuesday of PGA Championship week. Would it really have been better for Mickelson if he had to answer questions about the Saudi bombshell stepping off the 18th green of a practice round at Southern Hills?
If I’ve thought of Phil a lot over the last three months that’s probably because the excerpt rocked my world too. In his Feb. 22 statement, Mickelson wrote, “There is the problem of off-the-record comments being shared out of context and without my consent …” Those are among the most serious charges you can make against a reporter. Out of context? We were talking about Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour. Without my consent? Phil called me! Three times I had asked him face-to-face to sit for interviews for the book. He demurred and ultimately declined, which is his prerogative. Given how much access I have had to Mickelson through the years, I didn’t really need him, although I thought he would have benefited from telling his side of every story. I told him that. Then around Thanksgiving, a week before the manuscript was due, he texted me and asked if we could speak. Given this context, anything he said was going straight in the book, unless we agreed otherwise. Mickelson never said he wanted to go off-the-record and if he had asked, I would have pushed back hard, because this was my one chance to get him. He just started talking, eager to tell me everything.
It is important to note that Mickelson never opens his mouth without an agenda. He has spent his career alternately charming, cajoling, manipulating and bullying reporters. (This is laid out in detail in the book.) During the 2000s, John Hawkins was one of the most high-profile scribes on the golf beat, often breaking news for Golf World and Golf Digest. During a period when there was tremendous scrutiny about Mickelson’s gambling, Hawkins was alone in the locker room at the Tour Championship with Phil, who pulled out his phone and began placing bets on early-season college basketball games. “Over 20 minutes he must’ve made 50 bets,” Hawkins says. “It was like he was showing off.” This put Hawkins in an especially awkward position because his then-wife worked for Hugo Boss, assisting Mickelson with his clothing deal. “I’ve wondered about Phil’s motivation in being so brazen in front of me,” Hawkins says. “Was he trying to co-opt me? Was he testing my loyalty?” He never wrote about the gambling spree.
Out of context? We were talking about Saudi Arabia and the PGA Tour. Without my consent? Phil called me!
Had Mickelson been doing the same thing with me? He could have called any reporter to come clean about the Saudis, but he chose the guy who was writing his biography. In his statement he used the word “reckless” to describe his actions, and maybe that’s the point. He is an adrenaline junkie, and there must have been some kind of thrill in sharing with me his deepest, darkest secrets, knowing what was at stake. Or maybe it was pure calculation: By not setting any ground rules for our conversation, he was able to register his true feelings for posterity but could later give himself deniability that he didn’t mean for them to go public? His actions remain baffling, even (especially!) to me.
Mickelson is a polarizing character, and both his supporters and detractors were eager to tell me everything, but there were often ornate agreements about what material could be used or how it had to be sourced. One high-roller who had a history of gambling with Mickelson summoned me to his office to provide valuable background, but not only was I not allowed to record the conversation, I also couldn’t take notes; he wanted no evidence we had spoken. This gent told me a story that would have been international news, but it isn’t in the book because we were speaking off-the-record and I always honor those agreements.
Mickelson’s love of gambling is fundamental to understanding his style of play as a golfer. It might also explain the Saudi seduction. Based on his comments to me, he clearly enjoyed the idea of sticking it to the PGA Tour, but the real motivation was plainly the funny money being offered by the Saudis. Why was Phil so eager to cash in, at the risk of alienating so many fans and endorsement partners? The massive scale of Mickelson’s gambling losses has never before been made public, but, as noted in the book, during the Billy Walters insider trading investigation, government auditors conducted a forensic examination of Phil’s finances. According to a source with direct access to the documents, Mickelson had gambling losses totaling more than $40 million in the four-year period (2010–14) that were scrutinized. In those prime earning years, his income was estimated to be just north of $40 million a year. That’s an obscene amount of money, but once he paid his taxes (including the California tariffs he publicly railed against), he was left with, what, low-20s? Then he had to cover his plane and mansion(s), plus his agent, caddie, pilots, chef, personal trainer, swing coaches and sundry others. Throw in all the other expenses of a big life—like an actual T. Rex skull for a birthday present—and that leaves, what, $10 million? Per the government audit, that’s roughly how much Mickelson averaged in annual gambling losses. (And we don’t know what we don’t know.) In other words, it’s quite possible he was barely breaking even, or maybe even in the red. And Mickelson’s income dropped considerably during his winless years from 2014 to ’17.
Money was a big factor in Mickelson’s bust-up with his career-long caddie, Jim "Bones" Mackay. They announced their split in June 2017 with chummy matching press releases. At the time, the overriding emotion in golf circles was disbelief. “It felt like your parents were splitting up,” says John Wood, a longtime tour caddie and now an NBC/Golf Channel commentator. The statements made the divorce sound amicable, but that was nonsense. Bones had fired Phil at the ’17 Memorial over a series of simmering grievances (laid out in detail in the book), including hundreds of thousands of dollars in overdue back pay.
There is something Shakespearean about Mickelson’s arc. He had it all, or so it seemed, but greed and vanity and recklessness (and perhaps desperation) cost him everything, at least in the short-term. But he will come back, because he always has, through myriad controversies and heartbreaks. Even though he besmirched my professional reputation, I can’t help but still root for Phil. Because of the heat surrounding the excerpt, plenty of folks have asked if this book is some kind of takedown. Far from it. I have always enjoyed Mickelson and devote a lot of the book to celebrating his virtues. It is undeniably fun to be in his orbit. “One of the reasons Phil has lasted so long is because he’s had a joyful life,” says Charles Barkley, one of the few men alive who have been close to both Mickelson and Tiger Woods. “Tiger won a bunch of tournaments, but there wasn’t much joy in it. Sure, Tiger is a better golfer. You’re just in awe of his talent. But it’s not fun to be around him. Everyone in his world is uptight and shit, afraid to say or do the wrong thing. Tiger himself has always acted like he’s under siege. Gimme a fuckin’ break—you’re just a golfer, dude. When you’re with Phil, you’re guaranteed to have fun. He makes people feel good. Everyone around him is always smiling. That’s a huge difference, man.”
Mickelson has a softer side, too. His wife, Amy, had battled breast cancer in 2009, and at the PGA Championship seven years later, Ryan Palmer was still reeling from his wife’s recent diagnosis when he bumped into Mickelson outside the scoring tent. “I took him aside and told him about Jennifer,” says Palmer, “and before I said anything else he pulled me in for a hug. It lasted a really long time. Then he said, ‘Here’s what’s going to happen—I’m going to put you in touch with Dr. Tom Buchholz of MD Anderson [Cancer Center in Houston]. He’s gonna get you the best doctors and surgeons in the world. They’re gonna take care of you guys, and Jennifer is going to be OK.’ That night I was on the phone with Dr. Buchholz, and everything Phil said came true. I’ve never stopped being grateful for what he did for me and my family.”
Having covered Mickelson for pretty much his entire career—my first year on the golf beat was 1994, his second full season—and then immersing myself in his world for this book, I have encountered many people touched by his large-scale philanthropy and random acts of kindness. At tour events I still sometimes encounter David Finn, who for nearly two decades has been Phil’s biggest fan. David suffers from a mitochondrial disorder that has withered his limbs and has robbed him of his ability to speak. But a broken body can’t suppress the powerful spirit within. David’s bright blue eyes convey intelligence and an eagerness to connect. Mickelson sensed this when he crossed paths with David at the 2005 PGA Championship. After putting out on Baltusrol’s 14th hole, he walked over to David and said, “Hi, buddy, thanks for coming. Here’s a souvenir for you.” He laid an autographed glove in the kid’s lap. Says David’s father, John, “So many people don’t know how to act around the severely disabled. Pity is the worst possible emotion. The glove was a wonderful gesture, but what made that moment so meaningful was that Phil treated Dave like a normal kid, which is all he wants.”
The Finns followed Mickelson throughout the week, with Phil often acknowledging David with a smile or gesture. Mickelson, of course, won the tournament, but even in one of the headiest moments of his career, he thought of his biggest fan, so as the trophy ceremony was beginning, Bones hustled over to say his boss was wondering if David would like to have a picture taken with Mickelson and the Wanamaker Trophy. The moment was recorded for posterity by the Newark Star-Ledger: Phil has the trophy in one hand and the other is placed tenderly on the left shoulder of David, whose head is thrown back in ecstasy. The glove is now enshrined in glass in David’s room, and he has a thick scrapbook of his PGA Tour adventures, which his three older sisters call The Book of Phil. Asked about his affection for Mickelson, David spelled out on a touchscreen monitor, “Phil is the Arnold Palmer of today.” His father gently chided him for parroting something they had heard on Golf Channel. David thought a bit longer. With great determination, he tapped, “Phil was the first person to make me feel special.”
In the wake of the Saudi revelations, Rory McIlroy called Mickelson “naïve, selfish, egotistical, ignorant.” If he was only those things, I would have had zero interest in spending nearly two years working on a book about the guy. But Phil can also be generous, thoughtful, caring, empathetic, charming and a heckuva lot of fun. It is the multitudes within Mickelson that make him so fascinating.