An old proverb claims that if you wait long enough on the riverbank, your enemies’ dead will eventually float by. This is sometimes incorrectly credited to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War.” That’s a good metaphor for how some golf industry executives must have felt in the aftermath of Phil Mickelson’s recent comments, which have incinerated his reputation, alienated most of the game’s constituencies, exposed him to disciplinary action, and otherwise cast him in such an unflatteringly amoral light that even Greg Norman might hesitate to be seen in his company.
Mickelson showed the tendencies that have regularly lead him into turbulent waters in a November conversation with writer Alan Shipnuck that was finally made public this week: a fascinating blend of hubris and obtuseness. He verified what many already knew: that he supports the Saudi-backed Super Golf League, and he casually stated his willingness to ignore the regime’s atrocities in exchange for PGA Tour concessions that would profit him even more.
Mickelson, unable to pass up an opportunity to brag about his strategic brilliance, reiterated with callous indifference the approach shared by his locker-room companions, the majority of whom have yet to emerge from the shadows. But it was his admission that he and other as-yet-unnamed players paid for lawyers to construct the breakaway tour’s operational agreement that got him in trouble.
Wherever PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan placed his red line, indicating the point at which association with the league would result in a lifetime suspension, Mickelson’s actions fall squarely on the wrong side of it.
Mickelson’s lack of response to Shipnuck’s statements suggests he’s either accepting his fate or looking forward to a battle with the Tour. However, if he’s assembling an army to accompany him over the top, it’s starting to resemble a ragged collection of moth-eaten veterans rather than an elite fighting force. His Saudi patrons face the potential of paying hundreds of millions of dollars to acquire a Venn diagram of the washed-up, the uncompetitive, the cash-strapped, and the egomaniacal, all of whom overlap to form a subset of the unconscionable.
That much became evident at Riviera Country Club during the last few days.
The PGA Tour carpet-bombed its putative competitor with a succession of top stars lining forward to express their commitment in a calculated (and not exactly subtle) show of strength, each one further damaging Saudi ambitions to monopolize men’s professional golf.
Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka, for example, have already set their claim. For the time being, Jon Rahm, Mickelson’s manager, has declared firmly that the breakaway tour is not for him. Collin Morikawa sneered at the lack of specifics, implying Keystone Cops ineptness, which has been a trademark of Norman’s repeated attempts to disrupt the PGA Tour. It was obvious where Viktor Hovland would compete if he said he would compete wherever the world’s best were playing when he said he would compete wherever the world’s finest were playing.
After two years of nonstop conjecture about who would leave and for how much, the focus shifted to who wouldn’t be cashing a cheque in return for his conscience. That list is far more remarkable and meaningful than the athletes who would be on it.
So the Crown Prince’s factotums were in for a bad week even before they went to the Fire Pit Collective website and discovered that their most renowned advocate and recruiter is indifferent about the Super League’s performance and is only using them as leverage against the PGA Tour. (They were undoubtedly unmoved by Mickelson’s assessment of them as killers, human rights violators, and all-around “scary motherf—–s,” because who doesn’t?)
The Saudis—and whatever players they may have on board—must now see that there is no one among them that the game’s greatest will feel obligated to follow. Mickelson’s record and popularity, built on 30 years of cheesy grins and thumbs-up motions, would have led them to believe he was the pied piper once upon a time. Instead, mercenary greed and a contempt for those who suffer under his sponsors’ yoke have tainted his name, and allies are scarce.
Mickelson’s bravado has accelerated a long-overdue reckoning. In the following days and weeks, there will be ultimatums that will bring this tragic episode to a close. The fraudulent Tour members participating in this scheme—Mickelson and Norman in particular—have never been more ostracized from their peers, exposed in their ruthless opportunism, or without public support. For years, Jay Monahan and his European colleague Keith Pelley, among others, have patiently waited by the riverbed. They won’t be able to stay much longer.