You will be familiar with LIV Golf (aka the Saudi Golf League, or the Greg Norman Tour if you prefer) which is presently holding its second event, in Portland, Oregon. This blog is tangentially about that but more about golf’s two most compelling characters of recent times: Tiger Woods, who is not involved with LIV, and Phil Mickelson, who most emphatically is.
It is easy to say Mickelson is in it for the money – reportedly, a guaranteed $200 million over five years – and that’s probably true. No surprise there; the figure is huge. What is more shocking, perhaps, is that he might really need that money. According to Alan Shipnuck’s recently published book Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorised!) Biography of Golf’s MostColourful Superstar (Simon & Schuster), Mickelson had gambling losses of over $40 million between 2010-14. An unnamed friend said of Mickelson selling his Gulfstream jet in 2019: “He loved that plane so much it was like his fourth child. The only reason I could possibly imagine him doing that was him feeling serious financial pressure.”
It is something of a statistical oddity that Mickelson never was world No.1. That was down to Woods, of course, but David Duval, Ernie Els and Vijay Singh each managed it for a while. Mickelson would have been No. 1 had he won the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, but while a par-four at the last would have won it for him, he took six. Six is also the number of times he has been runner-up in his national championship. No one thinks he will win it now, notwithstanding his astonishing victory at the 2021 USPGA Championship, aged 50 – of which Nick Faldo told Shipnuck: “I think it’s one of the most remarkable achievements in golf, ever.” I guess one could look at it this way: five male players have completed the professional Grand Slam. Only one has won a major championship past 50.
One of those five, of course, is Woods. Shipnuck paints the scene well in August 1996, when Mickelson had just won his fourth tournament of the season at Akron. “The world was his oyster. Nothing could stop him now…Four days after the World Series of Golf, Tiger Woods made his pro debut.”
The two men were never destined to be besties. Shipnuck says this was hallmarked in 1998 when Mickelson hustled Woods into a money game ahead of the Los Angeles Open and gloated insufferably after he was victorious. When Woods was on his way to completing the Tiger Slam, Mickelson had a ringside seat as his final-round playing partner at the 2001 Masters. On the the 13th, Phil hit driver. Tiger knocked his 3-wood 20 yards past him. Mistakenly, Mickelson asked: “Do you always hit your 3-wood that long?” Irresistibly, Woods responded: “Normally further than that.” There is more than a sense of scorn in one of Tiger’s nicknames for his rival – ‘Hefty’, an ungenerous play on ‘Lefty’ – and his remark to an American golf writer, John Hawkins: “Hey, Hawk, do you think Phil lactates?”
Because of stuff surrounding LIV Golf and what Mickelson told Shipnuck (off the record according to the golfer; distinctly on it according to the author), their relationship has become a little strained, but clearly they were close. After Mickelson had publicly savaged Tom Watson for his inept performance as US Ryder Cup captain at Gleneagles in 2014, Shipnuck wrote he felt Mickelson had done that because going public was the only way to effect the changes he wanted. After Mickelson read the piece, he texted Shipnuck: “It’s like you can read my mind.”
The book is indeed a rip-roaring tale, crammed with excellent anecdotes, many reflecting well on Mickelson, many quite the opposite. Shipnuck also quotes the ex-player, now TV analyst, Brandel Chamblee, on the essential difference between Mickelson and Woods. “Phil wants to hit an amazing shot,” he says. “All Tiger wants to do is hit the right shot. Phil is the gambler. Tiger is the house, and he knows the house always wins. Phil thinks he knows more than the house.”
Which may help to explain why he had to sell his plane.
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