Column: Mickelson wins part of the battle, loses the war

Much like his style of golf, Phil Mickelson’s imagination is only as good as his ability to pull off the shot.

Mickelson has a right to feel somewhat vindicated by the bold and rapid changes coming to the PGA Tour. The idea — his idea, he can argue — is for the top players to compete against each other as often as 17 times, maybe more, for an average purse of $20 million.

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Much like his style of golf, Phil Mickelson’s imagination is only as good as his ability to pull off the shot.

Mickelson has a right to feel somewhat vindicated by the bold and rapid changes coming to the PGA Tour. The idea — his idea, he can argue — is for the top players to compete against each other as often as 17 times, maybe more, for an average purse of $20 million.

So in that respect, Mickelson won a big part of his battle.

The question now is whether he lost the war.

Mickelson won’t be part of a PGA Tour model he always wanted. His tour membership is not being renewed for this season. His name is the first one listed on an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour that has created so much animosity. He is as much a face of the Saudi-funded disruption in golf as Greg Norman.

Was he right? Does it matter?

“As much as I probably don’t want to give Phil any sort of credit at all, yeah, there were certain points that he was trying to make,” Rory McIlroy said. “But there’s a way to go about them. … He just didn’t approach it the right way.”

McIlroy spoke of collaboration. Mickelson likes leverage, and he might have relished that as much as the reported $200 million signing bonus he got from LIV Golf.

Mickelson wouldn’t use the word “vindication” in an interview last week with Morning Read on SI.com. This was Mickelson trying to take the high road, a path he prefers only when he suspects he’s right.

“All players should be appreciative of what LIV is doing,” Mickelson told Morning Read. “The players on LIV for the opportunity they are getting. And the PGA Tour for the leverage that was provided to get these changes done.”

These changes are what Mickelson began preaching some 20 years ago, only then he was more passive than aggressive. Change eventually came in the form of the FedEx Cup, a new model to bring the best players together at the end of the season in a series that culminated with the biggest payoff in golf.

Mickelson wanted more. This was in 2006, long before acronyms like PIP and PIF were part of the golf vernacular.

“Wouldn’t it be great if we had 20 events where everybody played together?” he said.

Lefty grudgingly accepted what he saw as baby steps to his big dreams. Most telling from that January day in 2006 was his admiration for Norman — “A brilliant individual,” Mickelson called him — and the Shark’s ideas for golf.

All these years later, Mickelson became Norman’s chief recruiter and had the leverage he needed — an endless supply of Saudi cash from the Public Investment Fund. That enabled LIV Golf to overpay for a roster of players that includes 10 major champions, five of them still among the top 50 in the world, the other five well past their peak years.

There is no meaning to the LIV tournaments — that takes years. There is no television partner yet, only a broadcast crew that artificially raises the hype and thus raises suspicion about the legitimacy of the product.

Even so, the PGA Tour was forced to respond by catering to the stars. The season will be shorter, the prize money higher, the fields smaller. That was in June. And then Tiger Woods and McIlroy led a private meeting of top players last month who pushed for a model where the elite play together all the time.

Odds are there will be more changes before January. What emerged from that meeting were eyes toward 2024. Next year is a bridge to get there.

Mickelson first referred to “leverage” when he was at the Saudi International in February. The damning comments came in his interview with Alan Shipnuck for his unauthorized biography, when Mickelson made it clear he was working both sides of the aisle.

He said the Saudis were “scary mother-(expletives)” who were behind the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and who execute gays. The PGA Tour was a dictatorship that prefers to ”divide and conquer.”

“And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage,” Mickelson said. “I’m not sure I even want (LIV Golf) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the tour.”

Such words can’t be forgotten. They are at the core of Mickelson’s motivation. He’s not interested in any ideas but his own. And still to be determined is whether the tour’s plan creates its own layer of division and strays from a century-tested ideal of meritocracy.

Commissioner Jay Monahan seized on Mickelson’s use of “leverage” by countering with “legacy” only the PGA Tour can provide, without realizing every player has a price and every agent gets a cut of it.

What legacy does Mickelson leave?

The 18-foot birdie putt at Augusta National for the first of his six majors or the egregiously swatting a moving ball on the green at Shinnecock Hills in the U.S. Open? Visionary for the good of the game or high-stakes gambler motivated by greed?

The success of the PGA Tour — and LIV Golf — could determine that.

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