A year ago, literally to the day — June 8, 2022 — Phil Mickelson stepped up to a microphone for the first time in months, making his first public appearance since going into golf exile. He looked gaunt, unshaven, even shell-shocked. The fan-friendly everyman persona was gone, replaced with a chastened, sober shell of a man.
What a difference a year makes.
Early in 2022, Mickelson’s reputation vaporized in nuclear heat after he called out the Saudi Arabian ruling regime as “scary mother[expletive]s” ... while simultaneously suggesting that murder and homophobia were a reasonable price to pay to reshape a professional golf tour. He was derided as a callous cynic, valuing the dollar over human rights, and in an instant destroyed a reputation he’d spent decades building.
Here’s what we’ve learned since then, though: like it or not, Mickelson was pretty much exactly right on every single point. If anything, he wasn’t cynical enough.
It’s worth revisiting the entire quote Mickelson gave to biographer Alan Shipnuck for context:
“They’re scary mother[expletive]s to get involved with. We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident 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? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi [Public Investment Fund] money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the league that would become LIV Golf] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
As called shots go, that’s on the Babe Ruth-pointing-to-the-grandstands level. Whether Mickelson accurately foresaw events shaking out as they did, or simply engaged in some magical thinking that turned out to be on target, isn't really the point. Assuming the PGA Tour-PIF merger all clears regulatory hurdles, the vast leverage of Saudi money has indeed just reshaped the entire PGA Tour. Already, between elevated purses, an impending team element and potential no-cut events, the LIV influence has fundamentally altered the trajectory golf had been on for decades.
As for Monahan’s “manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics” toward the players, well … note how Monahan treated Rory McIlroy, who spent the last year and a half defending the honor of the PGA Tour, only to get offered up as, in his words, a “sacrificial lamb.” For all Monahan’s talk of the PGA Tour being a players’ organization, the players didn’t even get a ceremonial seat at the table for the PGA Tour-PIF negotiations.
Mickelson loves to style himself, the cliché goes, as the smartest guy in the room. But when he nails golf’s greatest upheaval in generations right down to the letter, well … like it or not, he’ll strut.
Of course, his assessment of the Saudi ruling regime — which nearly torpedoed the entire LIV venture — also remains accurate. But as Tuesday showed, the PGA Tour is just fine compromising morality and principles to stack dollars even higher; Mickelson was ahead of the curve there, too.
In the wake of the PGA-PIF merger announcement, many fans loudly proclaimed they were done with golf, in much the same way that the sports world proclaimed in early 2022 it was done with Mickelson. But what happened at this year’s Masters — Mickelson’s first since his comments became public — gives a pretty strong indication of how the Saudi-funded PGA Tour will be received from here forward.
Late on Sunday afternoon, just outside Augusta National’s clubhouse, Mickelson — who had just put the finishing touches on a round that would leave him tied for second place in the tournament — greeted Augusta National eminences with a broad smile. He shook the hands of green jacket after green jacket, and it was as if nothing at all had happened.
The three-time Masters winner had spent the previous Tuesday virtually silent during the Champions Dinner, an event he routinely took over in the past. But by Sunday, with the benefit of some sterling golf, the support of the Augusta National gallery and the simple passage of time, Mickelson re-entered golf’s inner circles, and the golf world moved on as normal.
Next week’s U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club will be a fascinating look at the cascading, colliding narratives around Mickelson. Will the Cali crowd cheer Phil or boo him? Will the USGA dare to group Mickelson with Rory McIlroy on Thursday and Friday, or will the golf gods do the same thing on the weekend?
No matter what happens, Mickelson will keep on striding, smiling and giving thumbs-up all the way.