Is Phil Mickelson's Reputation Beyond Repair?

Lefty is currently embroiled in controversy surrounding recent Saudi comments

Phil Mickelson celebrates after winning the 2021 PGA Championship
(Image credit: Getty Images)

“Money doesn’t buy you happiness” is certainly a phrase Phil Mickelson will be reflecting on after his disastrously misguided attempts to “leverage” the PGA Tour and bring about change only the greedy felt was necessary. Mickelson released a long statement on Tuesday in which he apologised for his “reckless” words and said he “desperately needs some time away” after a highly tumultuous spell brought about entirely by his own actions. 

Mickelson had been involved with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments and the rumoured Super Golf League movement long before last month’s Saudi International, where he accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” in an interview with Golf Digest. 

Then, last week, author and journalist Alan Shipnuck released snippets from his upcoming book on Mickelson in which the six-time Major Champion called the Saudis “scary mother*******" but said involvement was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” He also revealed that he and three other players hired lawyers to write the Super Golf League’s operating agreement.

The apology

His statement on Tuesday referred to “off-the-record comments being shared out of context” – something vehemently denied by Shipnuck. In truth, his statement was filled with tail-between-the-leg remarks that attempted to curry sympathy and plainly spoke to regret at the situation as opposed to regret for his actions.

The six-paragraph document also contained many tropes associated with modern apology statements, such as “I will make every effort to self-reflect and learn from this” and “work on being the man I want to be.” He also revealed “the past ten years I have felt the pressure and stress slowly affecting me at a deeper level,” which is a concerning statement, but also one a cynic might say has been included to help cushion the inevitable backlash. It’s not as if Mickelson was coerced into his actions.

Money

So, how did it come this? As is often the case, money is the answer. Mickelson’s tirade in Saudi Arabia about players’ lack of access to media rights was directly related to monetisation potential. That coming from a man who earned $8m for topping the PGA Tour’s inaugural Player Impact Programme – a bonus pool rewarding golfers who drive the most fan and sponsor engagement – which was almost certainly launched as a response to pressure from rival golf tours. 

Mickelson has earned just shy of $95m on the PGA Tour during his career and tens of millions more through commercial pursuits. Going forward, though, he’ll no longer receive money from long-time sponsor KPMG, with the company confirming a "mutual" end to the relationship on Tuesday night.

Is the PGA Tour even broken?

The most perplexing thing about this whole saga is the fact Mickelson, at 51 years of age, put so much effort into ‘fixing’ something that wasn’t broken. The PGA Tour is as strong as it’s ever been and the product is as compelling as ever. Yes, the tour owns media rights and yes, you could probably make a case that more could go back to the players, but they are all independent contractors who sign a waiver at the start of each season granting media rights to the tour and its partners. 

According to a Golf.com article, more than $800m goes to players each season, around 55 per cent of the PGA Tour’s revenues, which is on par with other major sporting leagues. Plus, the PGA Tour has one of the most generous pension schemes on the planet and has given many golfers a platform to become rich beyond their wildest dreams. When you’re as wealthy as Mickelson is already, does such a fight seem worthwhile? At what point does perceived worth take a back seat to other factors?

Can his reputation be repaired?

The other puzzling thing is Mickelson’s long-term plan. If he successfully managed to persuade the PGA Tour to give away its media rights, would he even have been able to take advantage? To do so, presumably he’d have to turn his back on the Saudi-backed Super Golf League he, according to his words to Shipnuck, helped spearhead. If not, would his comments on the regime preclude him from participation on that tour? It’s all the more perplexing given rumours he was in line to captain the American Ryder Cup team at Bethpage Black in 2025, too. Along with his recent public apology, the Ryder Cup captaincy could certainly turn around his damaged reputation.

Phil Mickelson at the Ryder Cup

The 12-time Ryder Cupper could potentially captain Team USA at Bethpage in 2025

(Image credit: Getty Images)

There’s more than a hint of delusion about Mickelson’s comments; he seems to genuinely think he was carrying out an altruistic deed on behalf of his peers. Lefty has been in the limelight for 30 years and perhaps his success at the 2021 PGA Championship and constant hero-worshipping gave him an inflated sense of self-worth. Who knows, maybe we’d all have acted the same way given the circumstances. Of course, it’s impossible to say, but the perception of Mickelson has changed from a genius golfer to an egotistical puppet master.

The question now is whether recent events will tarnish his legacy. Only time will tell, but it’s hard to envisage a scenario where they don’t. Instead of riding quietly off into the sunset with his hundreds of millions of dollars, he became embroiled in a war that didn’t need fighting and convinced himself he was doing it for the right reasons. At best, it was severely misguided; at worst, a legacy-threatening mistake.

Nick Bonfield
Nick Bonfield

Nick Bonfield joined Golf Monthly in 2012 after graduating from Exeter University and earning an NCTJ-accredited journalism diploma from News Associates in Wimbledon. He is responsible for managing production of the magazine, sub-editing, commissioning and feature writing. Most of his online work is opinion-based and typically centres around the Majors and significant events in the global golfing calendar. Nick has been an avid golf fan since the age of ten and became obsessed with the professional game after watching Mike Weir and Shaun Micheel with The Masters and USPGA respectively in 2003. In his time with Golf Monthly, he's interviewed the likes of Rory McIlroy, Justin Rose, Jose Maria Olazabal, Henrik Stenson, Padraig Harrington, Lee Westwood and Billy Horschel and has ghost-written columns for Westwood, Wayne Riley, Matthew Southgate, Chris Wood and Eddie Pepperell. Nick is a 12-handicap golfer and his favourite courses include Old Head, Sunningdale New, Penha Longha, Valderrama and Bearwood Lakes. If you have a feature pitch for Nick, please email nick.bonfield@futurenet.com with 'Pitch' in the subject line. Nick is currently playing: Driver: TaylorMade M1 Fairway wood: TaylorMade RBZ Stage 2 Hybrid: Ping Crossover Irons (4-9): Nike Vapor Speed Wedges: Cleveland CBX Full Face, 56˚, Titleist Vokey SM4, 60˚ Putter: testing in progress! Ball: TaylorMade TP5x