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Phil Mickelson vs. Alan Shipnuck: Setting the record straight

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Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

October 13, 2022

Maybe you’ve seen Alan’s beard. It’s a nod to his other life, as a rugged northern California outdoorsman. He’s camping with his four children, and his cellphone is either lost, off or both. If he’s lucky, he didn’t even hear Phil’s recent comment, at a LIV Golf event in Saudi Arabia. Mickelson said on Thursday that he never “did an interview” with Shipnuck. And that post-election call Donald Trump made to the Georgia secretary of state, looking for 11,780 votes, was a “perfect” call.

Yes, this all relates to Mickelson’s description of the Saudis as “scary motherfuckers” and other comments Mickelson made to Shipnuck during a phone call last November, the ones that shook the golf world when they were released a couple of months later. Shipnuck, by way, never said their conversation was an interview either. He treated it as Mickelson venting for public consumption, and that’s how he used it.

Speaking of beards, I like Phil’s. The henna tat on the top of his left hand, inspired by Leaping Phil, a lasting image from his 2004 Masters win, looks like it could be part of the marketing campaign for the next “Planet of the Apes” movie. Phil has always been a wild mix of everything. But this thing from his LIV Golf press conference from the Royal Green Golf and Country Club in Jeddah is in my opinion an effort to rewrite history by way of bullshit.

Here’s how it unfolded:

Reporter: “You made some comments about this country last year, which you’ve apologized for. I’m just wondering, now [that] you’re here, have you changed your opinion?”

Phil: “I will reiterate: I never did an interview with Alan Shipnick [sic]. And I find that my experience, with everybody associated with LIV Golf, has been nothing but incredibly positive. And I have the utmost respect for everybody I’ve been involved with.”

He adjusts the stand-up microphone in front of him, which almost obscures his sunglasses perched on his black golf shirt, as he says reiterate.

He opens the fingers on his right hand at incredibly positive.

He punctuates utmost respect with an itty-bitty karate chop with his right hand.

Really, it’s such a good delivery you stand in awe. We’re talking Clinton-level.

But just as Phil can parse his off-the-pine-needles second shot on the 13th hole on Sunday at the 2010 Masters, any of his press-conference comments can be parsed too, including those three sentences.

Mickelson is not denying that he talked to Shipnuck, my longtime colleague and friend. He’s not denying that he said disparaging things about other Saudis—not the LIV guys!—like the scary motherfuckers who ordered and carried out the killing of the dissident newspaper columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

But what Mickelson said is to me an obvious effort to confuse the broad sports-following public, not those of us in its weeds. Normal people don’t have the time to try to understand the nuance of what Phil said. He must know that some people will take his comment to mean he didn’t talk to Shipnuck at all.

Here’s what I know, because Alan and I talked through this process. He was writing an unauthorized book about Phil Mickelson. He repeatedly asked Phil if he would talk for the book, by text, email and in person. Phil never said yes and he never said no. One of Mickelson’s lawyers, Glenn Cohen, called Shipnuck. Mickelson’s manager, Steve Loy, called Shipnuck. There was a lot of back and forth.

Then one day late last year, and Alan talked about this on a Fire Drill podcast, Alan was driving in southern California with the oldest of his four children and Mickelson called him with no advance notice. Because Mickelson was finally calling him back, Shipnuck treated Phil’s venting as material he could use for his book. Mickelson may have his own view, which he, of course, is entitled to. But Shipnuck’s view is that the subject of his book was finally calling him and that he had every right to use what Mickelson was telling him. Shipnuck’s job in writing that book was to tell his readers what the wildly interesting golfer is really like. He succeeded, in my opinion. Hugely so.

In February, Mickelson offered a broad apology for his comments and used an interesting passive statement about his comments to Shipnuck:

“There is the problem of off-record comments being shared out of context and without my consent, but the bigger issue is that I used words I sincerely regret that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words.”

As Shipnuck and others have said, and I would agree, it takes two to go off-the-record, or to talk on background, or whatever other agreements reporters and their subjects might reach. It’s based on trust and history and other matters. “Off record” is a contract, of a kind. It was a presumptuous thing for Mickelson to say.

Alan repeatedly tried to reach Phil. Phil finally called Alan back — late but not too late. He was, in my opinion, trying to spin Alan. Alan would not be spun. He treated the call as material he could use and he did. He didn’t need, quote, permission.

About this matter, both Mickelson and Shipnuck would agree. Phil’s call to Alan was reckless. At least he owned that.

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com