Phil Mickelson has awoken from his social-media slumber, and any hopes that he had learned his lesson about talking first and asking questions later are as wayward as his final drive at Winged Foot in 2006.
To those not on Twitter because they are busy living life, a golf account called Flushing It posited that a Ryder Cup-style match between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf—with Tiger Woods and Mickelson as respective captains—would be a ratings bonanza. This is not particularly a fresh opinion, as this prospect was floated during last year’s Presidents Cup, but the tweet garnered attention, including Mickelson’s. Making his 2023 debut this week at the Saudi International, Mickelson chimed in: “It sounds great, but we would dominate them so soundly and it would be over so quick that TV would have to fill an hour of dead time. That’s why it’s not happening at this time.”
Was it a lame jab? Yes, but 52-year-olds are inherently lame—there’s a reason “dad jokes” are a thing, after all. However, to dismiss this as trash talk is to obscure the obviousness of Phil’s intentions. At best it’s a desperate grab for attention. At worst, it’s gaslighting, another example of Mickelson trying to manipulate reality.
Because the truth is a PGA Tour versus LIV Golf match is a terrible, terrible idea.
For starters there’s not as much animus between tour and LIV players as believed. Yes, tour guys are not particularly thrilled that 11 of their previous colleagues attempted to sue them out of existence, or that a lawyer representing a LIV player delivered subpoenas on the eve of their weddings and Christmas celebrations, and LIV guys were flabbergasted that they weren’t particularly welcomed at last year’s Open Championship. But, mostly, golf’s cold war isn’t that frigid between each league’s rosters. Hell, Jordan Spieth took time out of his press conference at Pebble this week to speak fondly of Dustin Johnson. Besides a few knuckleheads, those who defected to LIV are not despised, so any sense of rivalry between player-to-player is simply not there.
Speaking of rivalry, for conflict to be good each side needs to be formidable. In spite of all its noise and promises of disruption, and away from headlines generated by individual signings and executive departures, it’s unclear if LIV Golf’s product can speak for itself. Actually, it’s quite clear, judging by last year’s YouTube audience numbers: It can’t. Not yet, at least. Perhaps that changes with a move to a traditional broadcast network this season, but at the moment LIV’s bite has not lived up to its bark.
Then there’s the actual competition of a theoretical match-up, and if you think the Presidents Cup is one-sided, a Tour-vs.-LIV battle might invoke the mercy rule. Cam Smith is very good. Same with Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed. But Brooks Koepka was a shell of himself last year, a possible byproduct of his body betraying him. Joaquin Niemann has finished no better than T-23 in 15 major starts. Ian Poulter and Paul Casey got their behinds handed to them at Whistling Straits two years ago. Marc Leishman played in 18 Presidents Cup matches and won four. Matt Wolff had already crashed-and-burned before leaving. Meanwhile, Will Zalatoris finished runner-up in two majors last season and T-6 in another, and he might not even make the tour team. Mickelson was partially right; this thing would be over in a hurry.
By the way, what incentive does the tour and its players have to entertain such a proposition? The tour’s dismissal of LIV has at times been to its detriment but here it is warranted, for engaging with LIV would grant the Saudi-backed circuit the very validity it seeks. Mickelson’s words are also an indictment on his organization, for the moment you argue why you matter is the moment you prove the opposite.
But the true reason a Tour-LIV matchup fails stems to its heart, or lack thereof. It’s easy to paint LIV Golf versus professional golf in the parlance of good and evil. It’s more complicated than that, as the past year has shown, yet it can be distilled to a sovereign wealth fund against professional sports leagues. What makes the Ryder Cup great, what makes it matter are not the individuals involved but who they represent. Their teams, their crowds, their countries.
That is where Mickelson is lost, and it’s no surprise, because LIV is the antithesis of the Ryder Cup, with tons of money to be made for golf that doesn’t seem to matter. At the Ryder Cup there’s no money involved but that’s the point, because what’s on the line can’t be bought.