What will Phil do next?

Mickelson's next moment matters

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Saudi controversy - Mickelson future
(John Locher/AP)

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Never has the phrase, “what will Phil do next,” been more fascinating to observe. In just over a week’s time the six-time major champion inadvertently advanced the narrative of being a self-oriented individual with little concern for the health of the professional game he espouses to promote.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Last Tuesday, Mickelson penned a nearly 600-word social media post ending with the following: “… need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.” 

The reality is one does not know if Phil’s stepping away was self-imposed or via an action by the PGA Tour. Inflammatory usage of the words “obnoxious greed” and the PGA Tour being a “dictatorship” may have set in motion a pushback that delivers serious consequences. There’s no way to know with certainty because the PGA Tour neither confirms nor denies any such actions as they are administered privately.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Since the posting of his social media post — Mickelson has lost two other sponsors — Amstel and Callaway. They join KPMG as companies wishing to keep Phil at an arm’s distance. Adding to Lefty’s woes — The American Express event, played annually in the Palm Springs area, opted to drop Mickelson’s name as host and went even further by cancelling the connection to the Mickelson Foundation, the charitable arm for the event.

For Phil, the bleeding came about because of self-inflicted wounds.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Matters were quickly set in motion when Lefty provided comments from an interview with journalist Alan Shipnuck whose book on Mickelson is expected to be out in May. Shipnuck posted a story based on the phone interview on “The Firepit Collective” website.

“They’re scary mother (expletive) to get involved with,” Mickelson says. “We know they (Saudi Arabia) killed (Washington Post reporter Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it (joining the Saudi golf tour)? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson claimed the comments were off-the-record and taken out of context. Shipnuck has categorically denied this and deemed Phil’s defense as “duplicitous.”

Phil’s colleagues on the PGA Tour have also come forward and denounced his statements which have only served to isolate the 45-time PGA Tour winner Instead of being fêted as a senior statesman given his outstanding playing record, Mickelson positioned himself in a place where his overall judgement is now an issue. Amazingly, the conflagration was swift and unrelenting. 

Interestingly, the PGA Tour never replied to Phil’s comments. This strategy prevented Mickelson from having an ongoing public dialogue pitting him against the larger-sized organization — a pageantry summoning a David versus Goliath spectacle. The Tour smartly stepped into the background allowing the verbal pushback coming directly from Mickelson’s peers. This served only to isolate Phil in the most precarious of positions from those, who like him, have a direct connection to what is faced.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Mickelson was quick to point out his comments were intended to create “leverage” over the sweeping domination the PGA Tour has over the professional golf tournament scene. But the public shredding of the overall strategy is now in tatters and leaves Mickelson looking like the character Tom Hanks played in “Castaway” — searching for a way to get off the island he has now placed himself.

The very thing Mickelson sought has actually backfired. Much of the professional golf establishment community has rallied in denouncing his comments as nothing more than self-promotion and leaves those wondering if Phil can truly recover from this situation.

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What’s next for Phil?​

With Phil on the sidelines from competition — whether self-imposed or through PGA Tour suspension — the issue now becomes what comes next for Mickelson?

At some point, he will return to competition and when that happens the media scrum will again be intense with a litany of questions regurgitating issues Phil initially raised.

How Mickelson handles himself will be of immense interest. The pressure will be intense for the star golfer to gauge carefully the type of emotions he will show when answering the array of queries. 

Should Phil’s first return come at the Masters in just over a month’s time the juxtaposition of the year’s first major and Phil as a three-time winner of the green jacket will be a most interesting combination. How will Masters officials react to having topics Phil raised be discussed again ad nauseam at Augusta? Will such discussions create a sideshow taking away the primary importance of the event — even if for just one day in the cycle of coverage?

Beyond the playing of the Masters, the shock waves from Mickelson’s comments could very well bring to life other revelations which only allow the matter to continue to resonate.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Ryder Cup Dilemma​

Mickelson’s first intersection with the Ryder Cup started with the ’95 matches at Oak Hill. He then played on every team through the ’18 matches in Paris — setting the record with 12 appearances. In addition, Lefty served as assistant captain under Steve Stricker at last year’s event played in Wisconsin where team USA won convincingly.

Phil’s love for the bi-annual tussles is as clear as day and leading the USA squad as a future Captain is one of the last remaining significant milestones missing on his career portfolio. Prior to the recent brouhaha, it was not a matter of if he would be selected Captain but when.

The situation has changed in a seismic manner. A paralyzing earthquake now leaves one of golf’s most celebrated champions in a precarious position via a teetering foundation that may now collapse.

The comments attributed to Mickelson went beyond inflammatory. They cut hard to the targets addressed. Searing in the manner provided — scorched earth can leave smoldering ground. In sum, Phil may likely need to bring forward some heartfelt humility in a public forum. Back pedaling is not the manner by which Phil has parlayed his golf successes. Extricating the foot he placed in his mouth may prove extremely difficult.

The one key advantage Mickelson has is the time clock. With Zach Johnson selected Captain for the next Ryder Cup matches in Italy in ’23, there’s plenty of time for matters to slide into the rear-view mirror. The adage that “time heals all wounds,” may be the saving grace for Phil.

Saudi controversy – Mickelson future

Phil’s Overall Standing in Golf​

When Mickelson captured the PGA Championship last May at Kiawah he became the first winner of a major event when reaching 50. The unending praise for Phil was uniform and sweeping. Now it is truly astounding that the situation has changed so radically in less than a year’s time.

Mickelson was inducted into golf’s Hall of Fame in 2012. His fan base is second only to Tiger Woods and even though his play since Kiawah has been less than inspiring, his mere presence at events rekindles the hope that Phil can raise his level of play at least one more time.

Although it’s possible Phil could retire and simply walk away from competitive golf, the likelihood of that happening seems small given his insatiable appetite for competition. Mickelson’s transition to the Champions Tour has been swift with four victories in just six starts.

Overall, Mickelson has achieved much from his on-course exploits. Although he trails by a considerable margin the 15 majors won by Woods, among active players only Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka are nearby in total majors won with four each.

Phil realizes he is in the late stages in his professional golf career. Undoubtedly, going the cautious route has never been his style but to successfully navigate what he now faces in the near term will require a deft touch. 

Reassessing how he wishes to be ultimately viewed in the history books is what is now at stake. One can only wonder if Mickelson truly grasps the enduring dimensions now on the table for ultimate validation.

We shall see.

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