No one would have been surprised if Phil Mickelson announced his departure from The American Express tournament in June, without the backdrop of Mickelson’s recent inflammatory statements against the prospective Saudi Arabia-backed golf league.
Mickelson’s absence from tournament duties at the 2022 American Express, which took place last month in La Quinta, drew criticism from fans. Mickelson was not going to be the long-term host of the La Quinta event, according to some behind-the-scenes comments from Tour officials that he was definitely getting older and might have other interests in golf.
But, in a world where a 24-hour news cycle can have two or three different twists in the same story, what fans and officials understood two weeks ago about The American Express and Mickelson suddenly feels like ancient history. Whether it was the proper thing to do or not, Mickelson’s momentum was building again, and it seemed like there was no way he could stay at The American Express.
What we do know is that after three years as host of the local event, Mickelson has stepped down, as has the Mickelson Foundation. The Mickelson Foundation was established with the sole goal of distributing tournament proceeds to charitable organizations.
But we also hear that Mickelson’s absence from the La Quinta event is likely due to the negative publicity he is receiving these days as a result of his statements regarding the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed” and the unsavory character of the Saudi government funding the proposed rival league. These remarks come on top of Mickelson’s desire to continue working with the Saudis to overhaul the financial structure of a PGA Tour that has made Mickelson and many others millions through golf.
Mickelson was almost certainly leaving the La Quinta event. It might have been on his terms, with the foundation still in place but Mickelson no longer marketing the event on I-10 billboards. It could have been his decision to withdraw from a PGA Tour Champions event in Hawaii the following week, now that he’s approaching his 52nd birthday.
Instead, Mickelson’s exit from The American Express will be forever tied to his involvement with the Saudi tour, which revealed that he was the selfish one who couldn’t do the right thing at the right time. The tournament will be thrown in with Workday, KPMG, and Callaway, as well as who knows how many Mickelson fans. That’s a little unfair considering no mention has been made of American Express pressuring Mickelson to go. In truth, American Express has a deal with the PGA Tour, not with Mickelson.
It’s anyone’s guess what will happen to Mickelson in the future, from a long layoff to a punishment to an outright retirement. Everything appears to be conceivable.
In the desert, the bigger mystery is what will happen at The American Express. Unlike Mickelson, the tournament isn’t going away anytime soon. Last month, American Express made that obvious by extending its title sponsorship arrangement until 2028.
Is Mickelson’s influence to blame for the stronger fields that have shown up at the tournament in recent years? Or was it the Tour’s and American Express’s clout? Even without Mickelson as the face of the event, the tournament has been on the rise in recent years, and it would be fantastic to see that trend continue.
The PGA Tour will have to work hard to ensure that the 2023 American Express is a success. One would think that the Tour would not have dropped the Mickelson Foundation without first discussing a new host organization, for example. That organization will require local ties as well as the ability to cooperate with an operating group such as SportFive, which has been in charge of the event for the past five years.
The Tour has spent much too much in the La Quinta event’s health to allow it slide by due to Mickelson’s departure. Next year, expect a competitive tournament with a strong field, but without Mickelson as host.