Mickelson MIA for the PGA

What will Phil do next?

Mickelson MIA for PGA

Mickelson MIA for PGA
(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

TULSA, OK. To paraphrase Shakespeare – “to play or not to play – that is the question.” Last Friday Phil Mickelson placed his cards on the table and indicated he will not be defending the title he so magically won last year at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course in South Carolina.

The six-time major winner has not played a competitive event in three months and few thought he would voluntarily sit out the first two major championships in ’22. But in both instances — he has.

Mickelson MIA for PGA

The PGA of America released a statement on Friday afternoon that spelled out the news. “We have just been informed that Phil Mickelson has withdrawn from the PGA Championship. Phil is the defending and currently eligible to be a PGA Life Member and we would have welcomed him to participate. We wish Phil and (wife) Amy the very best and look forward to his return to golf.”

Mickelson’s self-imposed sabbatical — as it appears now — came about from comments — in his mind made off the record to golf writer Alan Shipnuck. Those comments included the words “obnoxious greed” in reference to the PGA Tour and its operations. Mickelson went further in labeling the PGA Tour a “dictatorship” Shipnuck has vigorously denied Phil’s assertion that such comments were off the record. On Thursday of this week — timed during the playing of the PGA Championship — Shipnuck’s biography book on Mickelson will be released. An excerpt was released earlier this month stating that Phil lost in excess of $40 million in sports betting.

Mickelson MIA for PGA

If Mickelson had decided to be in the field at Southern Hills, it was likely he would need to face the assembled media and with that would come a barrage of questions given his collective actions to date. Something that PGA of America leadership would frown upon as the attention spent on Mickelson would only serve to be a major distraction and take away from the Association’s flagship event.

Mickelson will be the first defending champion to sit out the event since 2008 when Tiger Woods withdrew because of injury. Phil has played in every PGA Championship dating back to 1993 when he first turned professional.

While the initial comments sent shock waves through the golf world — it was his comments that followed in calling the Saudis “scary mother f*ckers” in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Mickelson stated his involvement with the Saudi effort to jumpstart a rival tour was simply to gain leverage with the PGA Tour in securing additional dollars for elite players — himself being among them.

Mickelson MIA for PGA

The LIV Golf Invitational Series — funded through the Saudi government — is set for London from June 9-11. Mickelson, along with other PGA Tour players, asked for a release to play in the event but the PGA Tour declined all such requests less than a week ago. This now sets the stage on whether the players who sought permission — including Mickelson — will opt to play notwithstanding the Tour’s opposition. Should that happen it is likely some sort of litigation via the courts will ensue testing the bylaws of the PGA Tour and the manner by which “independent contractors” like Mickelson are subject to its contents.

The PGA Tour has been clear — those playing who do defect will face a significant pushback in not being eligible to play in events under its auspices.

Mickelson MIA for PGA

Mickelson did provide a lengthy statement on February 22 in which he attempted to provide an apology for his “reckless” comments. 

The entire statement follows —“Although it doesn’t look this way now given my recent comments, my actions throughout this process have always been with the best interest of golf, my peers, sponsors, and fans. There is the problem of off record comments being shared out of context and without my consent, but the bigger issue is that I used words I sincerely regret that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words. I’m beyond disappointed and will make every effort to self-reflect and learn from this.

Golf desperately needs change, and real change is always preceded by disruption. I have always known that criticism would come with exploring anything new. I still chose to put myself at the forefront of this to inspire change, taking the hits publicly to do the work behind the scenes.

My experience with LIV Golf Investments has been very positive. I apologize for anything I said that was taken out of context. The specific people I have worked with are visionaries and have only been supportive. More importantly they passionately love golf and share my drive to make the game better. They have a clear plan to create an updated and positive experience for everyone including players, sponsors, networks, and fans. “I have incredible partners, and these relationships mean so much more to me than a contract. Many have been my most influential mentors and I consider all to be lifelong friends. The last thing I would ever want to do is compromise them or their business in any way, and I have given all of them the option to pause or end the relationship as I understand it might be necessary given the current circumstances. I believe in these people and companies and will always be here for them with or without a contract.”

Mickelson MIA for PGA

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The broader issue for Mickelson is what happens next? The U.S. Open comes up in June and it is the only major event in which Phil has not won — although he has finished a record six times as runner-up. There is also The Open Championship played in July at The Old Course at St. Andrews — marking the 150th playing of golf’s oldest major event.

Seth Waugh, CEO of the PGA of America, stated he had “a number of” conversations with Mickelson prior to Phil’s withdrawal and Waugh did indicate that should Mickelson have played he would likely need to address the media early during this week’s PGA Championship in order for rightful attention be focused on the event.

Waugh has also stated that any PGA Tour player who opts to play in LIV events will lose their membership with the association through its connection to the Tour. That would mean all such players will not be eligible for participation in future Ryder Cup events organized under the umbrella of the PGA of America. In that case, Mickelson would not be named a future Captain for Team USA — an event which Mickelson holds dear having played in the most matches (12) ever by an American player and having been a vice captain at the ’21 event played at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.

What happens next?

Should litigation ensue the involvement of the courts will only cause more friction between the players involved and the PGA Tour. The end game of such a conflict is difficult to know. The staying power and impact of how the LIV series of tournaments proceeds is also hard to assess. There’s been plenty of statements made by its Commissioner Greg Norman, a two-time major winner and former world ranked number one player. But the unknown aspects are still present and it remains to be seen how matters will actually unfold in the months ahead.

Mickelson MIA for PGA

Mickelson has a considerable fan base and despite all the commotion internally a return to competition will mean the re-establishment of that bond. Nonetheless, will Mickelson personally want to see his name associated with a regime intent on becoming a force in financing major events through a process of “sportswashing” given its long record of human rights abuses? And how will the Saudis react to Mickelson’s back pedal in using them as leverage against the PGA Tour for his own gain?

On the eve of this year’s PGA Championship what should have been a joyous memory in celebrating the oldest winner of a major event being on hand is now at a far different place. The win at Kiawah seems so much longer ago than the years’ time that has passed. The Mickelson name – which reached a crescendo last year in South Carolina is now embroiled in an endless array of speculations that have only served to muddy waters.

What the future holds for Mickelson and his ties to professional golf is now at issue. Questions are piling up and answers will be sought at some point. A dogged press will not be easily deterred indefinitely.

Mickelson is registered to play in the upcoming U.S. Open in the Boston area at The Country Club, however, given his collective actions to date his presence in that field now is hardly a given.

What will Phil do next?

Yes — indeed.