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FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Ask Alan: Addressing all of the Phil Mickelson questions

This article originally appeared on the Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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Luke Walker/WME IMG

Knowing what you know, and in light of his withdrawal from the PGA Championship, do you think he can ever come back? @MrChickSports

Phil is a survivor. He has been through numerous controversies in his long career, and he has always emerged with his vast fan base (mostly) intact. As Jack Nicklaus recently said, we are a forgiving nation. Sports fans love a comeback and a redemption story. Tiger Woods has put his fans and family and the game through much worse and he has never been more beloved than right now, so there is certainly a road back for Mickelson. The complicating factor is the Saudis: If Phil takes their money, after revealing his true feelings about how scary they are, it is going to be hard for many fans and folks in the game to forgive him. But if he shows the tiniest bit of contrition and pledges his fealty to the PGA Tour, I think the golf world will be happy to cheer for him again.

How much did the Tour not granting his release influence this? @Scall1968

Mickelson is at a personal and professional crossroads. The PGA Tour’s hard-line refusal to allow any of its members to play in the first Saudi event in June has only made Phil’s decision-making more complicated. There is safety in staying with the herd, and if the Tour had granted releases, a bunch of its members would have played in the inaugural Saudi event. Now Mickelson has to decide if he wants to be the player who defies the Tour and potentially triggers an antitrust lawsuit that could reshape the business of professional golf. This would appeal to Phil’s ego and deep desire to be celebrated as a visionary agent of change, but it carries a considerable risk of forever alienating fans and would-be corporate sponsors. By not playing in the PGA Championship, Mickelson bought himself another few weeks to see how the ground will continue to shift.

What’s going on? Is he suspended? I’m confused. @PeteViles

There is no question the PGA Tour put Mickelson on ice; whether it was a suspension or a voluntary leave is purely semantics. But it has been 90 days since Phil’s comments became public, which was reportedly the length of Dustin Johnson’s suspension after he failed a second drug test years ago. Forcing Mickelson to the sidelines for longer than that feels excessive. Unlike the Masters, the PGA Championship is not an invitational run by an all-powerful club that can do whatever the hell it wants; Mickelson is exempt into the PGA field as defending champ. And even if the Tour wanted Phil to stay in the penalty box for longer than 90 days, the PGA of America does not have to uphold the disciplinary action of a rival organization. Let’s be real, the PGA of America would have loved for Phil to roll up to Southern Hills, as it would have been a monumental news event that drove monster TV ratings. The organization is funded largely by the proceeds of the PGA Championship, plus the Ryder Cup it hosts every four years. Of course Seth Waugh and everyone at the PGA wanted Phil to play. That he’s not doing so had to have been his call and no one else’s.

Can we just play golf? So many other issues in the world, this is a game, a distraction—when and why did it get so political? @Shoduluk

That’s an idealistic vision, as sports and politics have been intertwined going at least as far back as Jesse Owens at the 1936 Olympics. Gary Player was a lightning rod for South Africa’s apartheid. Lee Elder broke the Masters color barrier more than two decades after Rosa Parks. Shoal Creek laid bare country clubs’ shameful history of racial discrimination, and Martha Burk further highlighted the game’s exclusionary practices. So controversy is not a new phenomenon for the sport. Professional golf does not exist in a vacuum; the players and tournaments are shaped by the world around them. I understand it is tempting to wish that golf would be untouched by the issues of the day, but willful blindness has often led the game astray.

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Phil Mickelson walks up the 18th fairway after playing an approach shot during the final round of the 2021 PGA Championship held at the Ocean Course of Kiawah Island Golf Resort.

Maddie Meyer/PGA of America

How much of this was seeing the Greg Norman debacle and realizing he was walking into a situation where he was not going to be able to exit looking good? @Bradorado1

Mickelson and Norman have never really been friends, but they are kindred spirits. Both have played the game the same way: aggressive bordering on reckless, and they have brought this same energy to the Saudi situation. Part of Mickelson has to be relieved that Norman, through his increasingly outrageous public statements, is taking some of the heat off of him. But, yes, it must be disquieting to imagine hitching your professional future to a pariah like Norman. A prominent Tour agent recently confided that he is hearing Norman is on the outs with the Saudis, which would be another wild development in this saga. If a leadership change is imminent with LIV Golf, that would be all the more reason for Mickelson to pass on the PGA Championship and take more time to assess a chaotic situation.

#AskAlan If Phil passes on London, can we say this is a self-hiatus that has no end in sight? @cmupensfan

Not necessarily, given the Tour’s refusal to grant releases. But if Mickelson doesn’t turn up for the ensuing U.S. Open, that raises the question as to whether he will write off the rest of this season. We all know the U.S. Open is the missing piece on Mickelson’s resume and winning the PGA brought him a five-year exemption to attempt to complete the career Grand Slam. To give up one of these precious chances would be an especially big deal.

One thing I’ve always been curious about: After Phil acknowledged all the issues with the Saudis out loud… they still wanted him on the tour? Isn’t the whole point to sportswash and pretend none of those issues exist? @ref513

I would say sportswashing is more about converting hearts and minds and turning skeptics into believers. If Phil starts making regular pilgrimages to Riyadh, visiting with girls in classrooms and eating at stylish restaurants alongside the female patrons Norman likes to cite, that would generate a ton of commentary given Mickelson’s previous skepticism. So perhaps his blunt comments make him the ideal ambassador to “see the light” and launder Saudi Arabia’s reputation.

Do you think Phil cares what his true fans think of him now? I am a little younger than Phil, I have grown up a huge Phil fan, and I am super disappointed in him. @Stoner7976

Yes, he cares. He hasn’t signed all of those (hundreds of thousands?) autographs through the years because he doesn’t care. But he is also a strident personality who has to feel like he is always right. His only public statement has been a word salad in which he made himself both the hero and martyr of this situation. Mickelson didn’t acknowledge that many fans are hurt he would collude with a country that birthed 15 of the 9/11 hijackers and assassinated a Washington Post reporter who was a resident of the United States. To truly apologize would require that Mickelson admit he made a monumental mistake, and he is loathe to do that; in his mind he was a shrewd negotiator who was gaming the system. I’m not sure if some fans will ever get from Mickelson the contrition they need to forgive him.

LIV ”tour”… I have not actually heard/understood where one could follow/watch the matches in the U.S. or globally. Would it be pay-per-play with or without commercials? @Foregolffer

Nothing has been announced yet, as the tour is still scrambling to figure out its television/streaming situation. This could be a win for golf fans, meaning free broadcasts with no corporate intrusions, at least in the short term.

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Phil Mickelson celebrates with his family after winning the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, New Jersey on August 15, 2005.

Sam Greenwood

Why has the golf media not discussed the issues with the PGA Tour that Phil originally brought up? They own the media rights of players, having pay-to-play in a made-for-TV event, etc. Are his issues not valid? @JStew68129215

Yes and no — the athletes in the big team sports don’t own their media rights either. If they did, TV contracts would be far less valuable and player salaries would shrink. But part of the irony, or tragedy, in all of this is that Mickelson was (is?) correct in many of his critiques, but that has been largely lost in all the outrage. Because of a lack of competition, the Tour product has become stale and its streaming and social media efforts are tepid, at best. Players should have a bigger voice in the business of the Tour and a bigger slice of the revenue streams. Phil was beginning to make inroads on these issues, and others, but clearly he has lost his political capital.

Do you feel guilty at all about all this shit, Alan? @wokekenzie

It has been uncomfortable to be in the middle of this story. I have a lot of emotions about it, but guilt isn’t one of them. I did not force Mickelson to engage in sneaky dealings with the Saudis that could subvert his home tour even as he had a clear-eyed knowledge of their atrocities. I didn’t make him call me and tell me everything. Those were his choices. He created this mess. Once I knew the real story of Mickelson’s involvement with the Saudis, I had a fiduciary duty to bring the truth to fans and other stakeholders in the game. My fidelity is to the readers, not Phil Mickelson, not the PGA Tour and certainly not the Saudis. But part of me most definitely wishes Phil had never called me. At that point, I was a week away from my publisher’s deadline and the book was basically done. It was full of fun, lively, outrageous stories about Phil and enough juicy bits to create some buzz. His phone call to me turned both of our worlds upside down.