- It’s tough to say which character feature it is—Hubris? Hypocrisy? Indecency?—motivates someone to vehemently demand the right to exercise his rights while being praised by benefactors of a government that dismembers its adversaries for doing so. Or to take a little break from drinking on the teat of Middle Eastern royalty to denounce the “obnoxious avarice” of an organization that had paid him a large quantity of money (which is not to presume he still has it).
For all the memorable moments in Phil Mickelson’s illustrious career—the dramatic first major victory at Augusta National, the unlikely final victory at Kiawah Island, even the bungled finish at Winged Foot—his it’s inebriated remarks in Saudi Arabia this week that threaten to define his legacy. At best, his statements imply that what he has in terms of self-esteem, he lacks in terms of self-awareness. And in the worst-case scenario? That he’s a willing liar for a government that wants to use golf to whitewash its human-rights abuses and war crimes.
Mickelson’s next movements will determine whether one of the sport’s most illustrious legacies will be permanently tarnished.
In an interview with John Huggan of Golf Digest, the six-time major champion lamented nearly every aspect of the PGA Tour’s operations. One of his main grievances is that he is prohibited unrestricted media access, as well as the ability to put his own camera team inside the ropes and otherwise profit from the shots he hits. He complained about having to pay the Tour a $1 million charge every time he stages a made-for-TV match (receipts will reveal Turner Sports signed those checks) and claimed the Tour owns $20 billion in digital assets, a sum conjured up as effortlessly as Jamal Khashoggi vanished into it.
It was enough to make one wonder if Mickelson had ever investigated the source of his $95 million in PGA Tour earnings, ignoring bonuses like the $8 million Player Impact Program payout he claimed in December before the PIP had even ended.
To maximize revenue from broadcast partners and advertisers, every major sports league is predicated on collecting athletes’ collective media rights. Mickelson is aware of this, and he is aware that any Saudi-funded Super League would follow the same financial model as the PGA Tour. If players can concurrently build their own content channels and dilute the offering, no broadcaster will sign on. Mickelson is shilling for the Saudis by parroting their talking points, attempting to browbeat fellow celebrities into believing they are being exploited and that their deserved pot of money awaits them at the end of the rainbow in Riyadh, whether he is duped, deceitful, or desperate.
“My ultimate commitment is to the game of golf and what it has given me,” he told Huggan, a remark that could only be believed if all but the first five and last lines were removed.
Mickelson’s greatest flaw is a burning need to be the brightest person in the room, hence his moniker “Figjam.” A mobbed-up Michigan bookie, on the other hand, does not get wet for $500,000 by the brightest guy in the room. Because he was acquitted in an insider-trading case, the smartest guy in the room won’t have to pay the government more than $1 million in ill-gotten earnings. Even the smartest person in the room won’t slap a moving ball in a competition and then brag about it by claiming (incorrectly) that it was a savvy use of the rules.
Now the smartest guy in the room is cozying up to a repressive dictatorship in order to obtain “power” over the PGA Tour to settle his personal grievances, which he cynically frames as a good faith effort to prevent widespread profiteering off the backs of his fellow players.
“The Tour is simply concerned with leverage.” He added, “And now the players are getting some of that.” “Things are changing now and will continue to change in the future.” I’m simply hoping that the leverage doesn’t go. If that happens, we’ll be back to square one.”
Mickelson mistakenly uttered the quiet part out loud, which should not go unnoticed by those who paid him to play the Saudi International and seek to secure his unpredictable loyalties for the breakaway Super League. While Mickelson is a wonderful instrument for Saudi sportswashing, he also serves a role for the Saudis. Leverage exists only as long as there is a risk of players leaving the PGA Tour. Players have no leverage after they sign with the Saudis, least of all with their new employer. Playing chicken with people who hack off heads when crossed is a bad idea.
There are numerous valid criticisms that may be made about the PGA Tour’s governance, policies, culture, openness, and product. These are all problems Mickelson could have influenced during his three decades on the Players Advisory Council, but he left the group more than 20 years ago. In the intervening years, he has reaped significant benefits from the Tour’s administration while receiving nothing in return.
Mickelson is now behaving as a quisling for the Crown Prince, threatening to put an end to a tour on which he built his career and on which hundreds of others rely to make ends meet. “The Tour’s excessive greed has really opened the door for chances elsewhere,” he explained.
Mickelson’s concern is that those opportunities only exist if others step through the door with him. One man—no matter how accomplished he is—does not make a tour, especially if he is over 50 and has a short competitive runway ahead of him. Despite all of the swagger, bravado, and threats, no golfer, not even Mickelson, has had the bravery to cross that line.
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