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PGA Championship 2023: The very thing that made Phil Mickelson loved is what makes him so polarizing now

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Suhaimi Abdullah

May 16, 2023

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — Phil Mickelson did what many think couldn’t be done two years ago at Kiawah Island in winning the PGA Championship at the age of 50. He did it with power and touch and strategy, but most of all, he did it with a conviction in himself that borders on arrogance. It is as he's always done because that’s the only way he knows. For that, Mickelson earned a victory lap that should have lasted forever. Two years later, that celebration is long over, done in by the very way he earned it.

Mickelson is playing his first PGA since that Kiawah triumph, having skipped last year's true title defense at Southern Hills following the firestorm he created early in 2022 on his way to moving to LIV Golf, and he enters this major on the offensive against the very organization running the tournament. In a series of recent tweets, the six-time major champion accused the PGA of America, along with the USGA and Augusta National Golf Club, of colluding with the PGA Tour. This is the same tour on which Mickelson played for three decades, only to join other players in an antitrust suit against that circuit in the name of LIV Golf, the Saudi Arabian-backed league that Mickelson helped spearhead because he thought he and others deserved better.

In a vacuum, that makes sense, fitting for his maverick persona. It takes a rebel to take on the establishment, to fight for what you believe is a greater good, while taking the heat that comes with dancing in the fire. Only the very characteristics that made Mickelson so beloved then have made him so polarizing now.

Mickelson’s way—and it is the way he plays and thinks and talks and acts—was encapsulated at Kiawah's Ocean Course in 2021. To most of the sport, he was a ceremonial golfer, one of the greats, but at 50 his game was discussed in the past tense. Mickelson looked at his competition, 155 of the world’s best golfers, young and strong and fit, and still saw himself among them. It’s why his eventual victory was a communal experience on the shores of South Carolina: In Mickelson, we had an avatar who showed that we can battle against the pressures of our past with the hope of what can still be—and come out on top.

Now, that same willful stubbornness takes a different tenor. Mickelson had the right to back an upstart league, and whatever his arguments were with the PGA Tour, he made his decision and got paid handsomely for it. Why he couldn’t go in peace, and why the suit is attempting to take down the institution that gave him so much is a point of great consternation for many.

During the final round at Kiawah, Mickelson played mind games with Brooks Koepka, going out of his way to say very little to his rival while playing as slow as possible, believing these little tricks would mess with Brooks. They did. “I got trounced on that one,” Koepka later said. “I thought it was pretty good what he was doing.” The gamesmanship added to the mythos of Mickelson, showing that though this game is increasingly dominated by power, it can still be won with the mind.

In a sense, a similar philosophy was on display with his recent shots at the PGA of America, knowing full well that the PGA didn’t break from previous protocol to exclude LIV Golf members when filling out its field, but knowing his comments would raise noise about the matter. But those tweets sure didn’t seem like gamesmanship; they seemed manipulative, Mickelson bending the truth to a narrative he’s desperately trying to sell.

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Darren Carroll/PGA of America

The PGA Championship win solidified Mickelson's reputation as one of the game’s great gladiators. There have been better careers, and players have reached higher peaks, but few have retained a childlike wonder for their profession, a wonder that felt spurred by competitive fire. Phil didn’t always come out on top, and it was rarely pretty, but the man loved to be in the ring. Which is why it’s hard to see him now on what feels like an exhibition circuit, and perhaps why the 45-time PGA Tour winner finished 45th out of 48 players in LIV Tulsa last week. He has become the very person we’d swore he’d never be.

Before LIV, Phil’s social antics were often referred to as “dad jokes.” He showed off his calves and used phrases like “hellacious seeds” and “bombs,” knowing the slang only underlined his age. He embraced becoming the tour’s wacky uncle. Now, Phil’s social antics read like your uncle’s Facebook conspiracy theories, and his attempts at humor are the echoes of a showman doing everything he can to hold onto the spotlight.

Thing is, this time last year, Mickelson seemed OK to let that spotlight go. When he ultimately returned to golf in 2022 from his sabbatical, first at LIV’s launch in London and then the following week at the U.S. Open, Phil did not seem like Phil. He was muted, reserved, conservative. The golfer who had famously embraced the brazen promised to lower the temperature.

“I have had strong opinions and ideas regarding most of the governing bodies, and I've done a poor job of conveying that. I've made it public, and that's been a mistake,” Mickelson said. Going forward, he added, he would be "a lot more thoughtful with my words and actions and try to keep a lot of those things behind closed doors.”

Quick as sports fans are to judge, they are also happy to forgive, especially those who are contrite. Unlikely as it seemed, a chastised Phil, a sorrowful Phil, may have still had life.

Instead, he has spent the past year doing the opposite of his promise, airing his thoughts and opinions whenever he can. Perhaps because he sees "his way" is no longer going his way. LIV Golf has lost a series of legal battles with the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. It remains without World Ranking points. No stars defected to the league in Year 2. Two of its big names were dueling in Tulsa, only for the CW Network’s affiliates in many markets around the country to pull the broadcast’s final holes in favor of reruns of "Magnum P.I." and "Family Feud." That is not the league of rebels; that is a sideshow.

Mickelson is not foreign to sideshows. Should there be any doubt, one only needs to remember him feuding with Detroit media and threatening never to return to the city following the revelation of Mickelson’s ties to a mobster. Or the Saturday at Shinnecock in 2018, when he hit a moving ball in an act of petulance and defeat. Or the defiance after an insider-trading scandal. Or throwing two Ryder Cup captains under the bus. And any 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. It’s a thin line between self-assured and self-absorbed.

It is why Mickelson’s latest rants against the PGA of America don’t hold up. Mickelson has argued he is standing up for players’ rights, that he’s fighting for a greater good against an establishment unwilling to change. Except, on closer inspection, there’s little evidence in the three decades he was on tour that he worked and collaborated with his colleagues to improve the tour. The only situation he ever worked to improve was his own.

So Mickelson is back at the PGA Championship, run by the organization he believes is working against him. He’s a long shot, as you’d expect from a 52-year-old. Conversely, Kiawah was just two years ago, and the Masters was last month, where only champion Jon Rahm finished ahead of him. But to think a theoretical win would elicit the same type of emotion and joy and love is perhaps the real long shot.

It’s not that Phil Mickelson has changed. He continues to do things his way because that’s the only way he knows. That’s the problem.