Phil Mickelson, the 51-year-old six-time major champion, has had an expensive time of it over the past few days. Major companies KPMG, Heineken and Workday have ended long-term contracts with him. His club manufacturer, Callaway, has “paused” their relationship, not that he’s likely to be playing much golf in the near future. It is estimated he may be $30 million down the tubes as a result of a phone conversation he had last November with an American golf journalist, Alan Shipnuck, about his involvement with Saudi Arabia and the intended launch of its Super Golf League (SGL).
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck. “We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay…[but] the Saudi money has given us leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed but the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the Tour…this is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” In other words, Mickelson was effectively telling Mohammed bin Salman, the head honcho of Saudi Arabia, that he’s been playing him. Phil has always had a reputation for being a high-stakes kind of guy but I’m not sure that telling the man who, according to US government sources, had Khashoggi killed that he’s using him as a pawn in some bigger golf game is a smart move.
How is it that someone who’s become as wealthy as Mickelson has from a career spent on the PGA Tour become so incandescent about its modus operandi? I am grateful to a column by David Walsh in the Sunday Times last year for pointing out what Mickelson had told the Five Clubs podcast last September. “Compared to golf,” he complained, “[NFL] football, baseball and basketball have roughly 55% of their revenues going to the players and they have great representation. If they have they have a grievance, they’ve got somebody to go to. On the PGA Tour, we have 26% of the revenues going to the players and if we have a grievance we go to the commissioner and he says ‘Ah, I don’t want to pay you any more, I’m good’. We don’t have a vehicle [but surely there are courtesy cars?] to make sure the top players get taken care of. For example, we don’t own our media rights at all, so anything that is shot at a tournament, the PGA Tour puts it up on its website and makes millions off it.” There you have Phil’s beef.
Rory McIlroy, a critic of the SGL, pronounced the scheme “dead in the water”, and it seems it will be very difficult for it to attract anyone who is not approaching senior status, such as Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. Mickelson, of course, has already passed 50. McIlroy added: “I don’t want to kick someone while he’s down,” before going on to do precisely that. He called Mickelson’s remarks “naïve, selfish, egotistical, ignorant”. With an obvious lack of originality, Mickelson said his comments had been taken out of context, leaving one to wonder in what context “scary motherfuckers” might mean anything other than what it seems. He then announced he was going to take a break from the game. He certainly seems to be in need of a good lie down.
Despite further setbacks for the SGL (Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau also professed their support for the PGA Tour), Greg Norman, the public face of the Saudi golf operation, said in a letter to the PGA Tour boss, Jay Monahan: “Commissioner – this is just the beginning. It certainly is not the end.” In other developments, it was reported that Donald Trump had entered negotiations with Norman for two of his courses in the States to host SGL tournaments. And you know how much Trump says he hates to back a loser…even if losing is what he has latterly done.
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