An old adage—often wrongly attributed to Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”—holds that if you wait by the riverbank long enough, the bodies of your enemies will eventually float by. That’s as good a metaphor as any for how some golf industry executives must have felt in the wake of recent comments by Phil Mickelson that incinerated his reputation, alienated most every constituency in the game, exposed him to disciplinary action, and otherwise cast him in a light so unflatteringly amoral that even Greg Norman might hesitate to be seen in his company.
In a November interview with writer Alan Shipnuck that was only made public this week, Mickelson betrayed the traits that have frequently led him into choppy waters: a beguiling mix of arrogance and obtuseness. He confirmed what was widely known—that he’s an advocate for the Saudi-backed Super Golf League—and breezily admitted his willingness to overlook the regime’s abuses simply for a chance to force concessions from the PGA Tour that would further enrich him.
Unable to forgo an opportunity to boast of his strategic genius, Mickelson affirmed with callous indifference the approach shared by his fellow travelers in the locker room, most of whom have not yet been flushed from the shadows. But the comment that holed him below the waterline was an admission that he and other as-yet-unnamed players paid for lawyers to draft the breakaway tour’s operating agreement.
Wherever PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan drew his red line marking the point at which involvement with the league would earn members a lifetime ban, there can be little doubt that Mickelson’s actions place him firmly on the wrong side of it.
The fact that Mickelson has not disputed the quotes published by Shipnuck suggests he’s either resigned to his fate or eager for a showdown with the Tour. But if he’s assembling an army to go over the top with him, it is starting to resemble more a mangy assortment of moth-eaten veterans than an elite fighting force. His benefactors in Riyadh are facing the prospect of spending hundreds of millions of dollars to buy a Venn diagram of the washed-up, the uncompetitive, the cash-poor and the egomaniacal, all overlapping to form a subset of the unconscionable.
That much became clear in the past few days at Riviera Country Club.
In a choreographed (and not exactly subtle) show of strength, the PGA Tour carpet-bombed its putative rival with a parade of top stars stepping up to declare their loyalty, each one further crippling Saudi ambitions to own men’s professional golf.
Nov 14, 2021; Phoenix, Arizona, USA; Phil Mickelson walks to the green of the 18th hole during the final round of the Charles Schwab Cup Championship golf tournament at Phoenix Country Club. Mandatory Credit: Allan Henry-USA TODAY Sports
Some players had previously staked out their ground, like Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods, Justin Thomas, and Brooks Koepka. Jon Rahm, for now a managerial stablemate of Mickelson, restated unequivocally his rejection of the splinter tour. Collin Morikawa was scornful on the lack of concrete specifics, hinting at a Keystone Cops incompetence that has been a hallmark of Norman’s recurring efforts to disrupt the PGA Tour. By the time Viktor Hovland said that he would compete wherever the world’s best are playing, it was evident just where that would be.
After two years of ceaseless speculation about who might bolt and for how much, the narrative changed to focus on who won’t be cashing a check in exchange for his conscience. That list is considerably more impressive, and relevant, than the roster of players who would.
So it was shaping up to be a lousy week for the Crown Prince’s factotums even before they surfed to the Fire Pit Collective website to learn that their most prominent advocate and recruiter is ambivalent about the Super League’s success and is merely using them for leverage over the PGA Tour. (They were probably unfazed to read that Mickelson considers them murderers, human rights abusers and all-around “scary motherf—–s” because, well, who doesn’t think that?)
It must now be inescapably apparent to the Saudis—and to any players they have on board—that there is among them no one who the game’s best will feel bound to follow. Once upon a time, they might have been confident in Mickelson as that pied piper given his record and popularity, built as it was on 30 years of cheesy grins and thumbs-up gestures. Instead, his legacy is tarnished by mercenary greed and disregard for those who suffer under the yoke of his patrons, and allies are in short supply.
Mickelson’s braggadocio has hastened a reckoning that was overdue. Ultimatums loom in the coming days and weeks that will force this sorry episode toward a conclusion. The charlatan Tour members involved in this scheme—Mickelson and Norman chief among them—have never been more isolated from their peers, never more exposed in their heartless opportunism, and never more lacking in public support. Jay Monahan and his European counterpart Keith Pelley, among others, have waited patiently by the riverbank for several years. They will not have to linger much longer.