Sports

Perspective | Phil Mickelson’s self-inflicted collapse keeps getting sadder

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There are many ways to look at the Phil Mickelson debacle. You can say he’s getting what he deserves, being so ostracized that he can’t even bring himself to show up at the PGA Championship, a year after his miracle victory in the event.

You can say the huge gambling debts he ran up, according to Alan Shipnuck’s new book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,” are a result of his arrogance and lack of discipline.

You can say all this has happened because he’s always believed he’s the smartest guy in the room.

You would be right on all counts. But as someone who has known Mickelson for almost 30 years, one word comes to mind following all that’s happened in recent months: sad.

The whole thing is sad, because Mickelson has been a truly great player: six major championships; 45 victories on the PGA Tour, a Hall of Famer when he was 42. He played on 12 straight Ryder Cup teams and, until a couple of months ago, was a lock to captain the U.S. team at Bethpage Black in 2025.

The numbers are tremendous, but they don’t begin to tell Mickelson’s complicated story. Put simply, the guy has been great for golf.

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He’s always been fun to watch, with his Arnold Palmer go-for-broke style that has both made him — coming from three behind on the back nine at the 2004 Masters — and broken him, as in his mental meltdown on the 18th hole during the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

Beyond that, the only golfer in history who has come close to signing as many autographs as Mickelson is Palmer. Every day at the golf course, regardless of how he played, Mickelson blocked off 45 minutes to sign autographs. I often watched him interact with fans as he did so — listening, laughing, responding, making them feel as if they mattered.

“He just signs [autographs] to help his image and his marketing,” was an argument I heard countless times.

My answer was always the same: “Maybe so, but do you think the 10-year-old kid going home with his autograph cares why he signed?”

Most of the time, Mickelson was also a joy for us in the media to work with. He had his occasional walk-offs after bad rounds, but they were infrequent. After his awful double-bogey that cost him that U.S. Open in 2006, he not only spoke to the media, but said this: “I’m such an idiot.”

Go ahead and give me the list of athletes who have been that candid after a disaster. I’ve got one: John McEnroe, who came into the interview room at the Australian Open in 1990 after being defaulted mid-match and said, “This is like a long story, you know, that culminates in me getting defaulted at a big tournament … I mean, I guess it was bound to happen.”

Mickelson was also very funny at times. When he was tied for the lead after 54 holes at the 2004 Masters, someone asked him how it felt knowing that Tiger Woods, his number one tormentor, was nine shots behind and back in the pack. Rather than give the golfer’s patented “I just play against the golf course” cliche, Mickelson shrugged and said, “It doesn’t suck.”

The next day he overcame Ernie Els’s three-stroke back-nine lead and won his first major with an 18-foot-birdie putt on the 18th green that led to one of the great non-jumps in sports history. Even if you aren’t a golf fan, you’ve probably seen the putt and Mickelson’s earthbound leap.

Mickelson’s honesty frequently got him in trouble. When he whined about California’s income taxes in 2013 and threatened to move out of the state, he was roasted when it was pointed out that his career earnings had been about $70 million. He apologized, saying he shouldn’t have said anything about the tax issue.

I later sat down with Mickelson to talk to him for the book I was writing on the Ryder Cup. Before I could start asking questions, Mickelson said, “You know, I want to clear one thing up with you: I’m not a right-winger on most subjects. I’m liberal on social issues. … I’m just conservative when it comes to fiscal issues.”

I nodded and said, “But you’ll admit money is always your number one issue, right?”

He shook his head and said, “Oh no, money is number one, number two, number three, number four and number five.” I appreciated his honesty.

There have been other controversies, including his involvement with a big-time gambler that entangled him in an insider-trading SEC investigation. There was also his criticism of 2014 Ryder Cup captain Tom Watson after the U.S. got blasted by Europe in 2014 at Gleneagles.

The Americans got outplayed that weekend — badly. Mickelson was angry because Watson chose to keep him on the bench for both Saturday sessions.

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There’s no excuse for Mickelson (and Greg Norman) deciding to throw in financially with Saudi Arabia Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, but what is damaging him most now are the comments he made to Shipnuck about the Saudi tour and bin Salman back in November. Mickelson admitted that bin Salman was a murderer and that his country’s treatment of gays was inexcusable, but then said he was willing engage with the Saudis because he saw it as a way to reshape the PGA Tour. In truth, it was — and might still be — a way to make a lot of money.

Mickelson then made it worse with an “apology,” in which he tried to claim the comments were off the record and also said he’d been quoted out of context. I know both Mickelson and Shipnuck: Mickelson doesn’t go off the record and Shipnuck is an outstanding reporter. And “out of context” — in any context — means “Yeah, I said it, but I don’t want to take responsibility for it.”

Mickelson hasn’t played anywhere since an event in, surprise, Saudi Arabia in February. He skipped the Masters, where he is a three-time champion. He once said to me, “Every time I drive down Magnolia Lane, I feel as if I’m a golfer born all over again.”

And yet, he never drove up Magnolia Lane in April.

And now, he won’t be at Southern Hills this week to play in the PGA Championship, an event he won a year ago, becoming the oldest man in history to win a major championship. His triumphant march up the 18th fairway at Kiawah Island with thousands screaming for him was one of those moments that gives you chills and reminds you why sports are worth our time and passion.

Now, he’s absent and no one knows when he’ll come back or what it will be like for him when he returns. Thousands will still cheer him — the way they cheered Tiger Woods when he came back after the scandals that ended his marriage — because sports fans forgive their heroes just about anything.

But Mickelson’s legacy will never be the same. And that’s very sad.


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