Alan Shipnuck didn’t know his biography of Phil Mickelson would become the most anticipated and newsworthy release of a golf book since his 2011 collaboration with Michael Bamberger, “The Swinger,” a work of fiction that was a thinly disguised version of Tiger Woods, his rise and sudden fall (and since, rise again).
The big difference is that “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar” (Simon and Schuster) is true – difficult as it may be to believe some of the exploits, stories and anecdotes packed into the book that goes on sale in stores and online Tuesday.
What won’t happen next week is Mickelson defending his PGA Championship. The PGA of America announced on Friday that the two-time PGA winner would not play at Southern Hills, continuing an exile from competitive golf that is either self-imposed, a PGA Tour suspension or a combination of both.
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Either way, his absence and Shipnuck’s book may overshadow the early part of PGA week — a book Shipnuck writes was “three decades in the making.”
“Phil is really fun to write about,” Shipnuck said from his home in Carmel, Calif. “He’s a larger-than-life character. He can be incredibly funny and charming and thoughtful, but also utterly ridiculous. There are things in the book about him that are infuriating and things that soften your heart. He is many things but never, ever boring.”
The book starts with Mickelson challenging Shipnuck to a fight under the 18th hole grandstand at the Medinah Country Club in Chicago after the final round of the 1999 PGA Championship and ends 239 pages later with Shipnuck’s poignant description of Mickelson and his wife Amy walking hand-in-hand at Whistling Straits at the end of the second day of the 2021 Ryder Cup, moments after Amy Mickelson said of the U.S. dismantling of Europe, with her husband as one of the vice-captains, “Oh, this is great! All the fun but none of the stress.”
In between those incidents is plenty of fun and stress as Shipnuck vividly tells the story of a walking, talking, shot-making contradiction:
• Mickelson, the golf genius who made some of the most miraculous shots and biggest blunders of his generation and owner of perhaps the best combination of the short game and putting in PGA Tour history, but has obsessed about ways to hit the ball higher and farther than anyone.
• Mickelson, the mentor to younger Tour pros who also went full-blown Mean Girl in cruelly making fun of one young player’s weight in a taunt that wasn’t worthy of an eighth-grade lunch table. Shipnuck talked to one major champion who described Mickelson as “the biggest fraud out here – a total phony,” and another player who told the story of how he introduced his children to Mickelson, who then told them how he tried to emulate how their father conducted himself as a professional. “Made me feel like a million bucks in front of my kids,” the player said.
• Mickelson, the huge tipper who pledged his earnings at the PGA Tour’s stop in New Orleans to victims of Hurricane Katrina and when he only won around $80,000, kicked in $250,000 more, but who also was fired by one of the most loyal and hardest-working caddies on the Tour because of a dispute over a percentage of FedEx Cup earnings that were in line with what caddies should be paid.
• Mickelson, justly proud of his record in golf, magnanimous in victory, always holding himself accountable in defeat but being petty enough to turn down the USGA’s Bob Jones Award, one of the highest honors a golfer can receive from one of the governing bodies of the four major championships, because of his on-going feud with the USGA over course set-up at U.S. Opens.
• And Mickelson the fan favorite, who spent an entire career as the most beloved player since Arnold Palmer but has thrown nearly all of that goodwill away because of money, trashing in one interview with Shipnuck the Tour on which he has made nearly $100 million and the upstart tour financed by Saudi oil money that promised him even more riches.
Rich golf life, complicated man
“If readers feel confused and ask themselves, ‘I don’t know if I can like him or not, root for him or not, then I did my job,” said Shipnuck, the author or co-author of eight books and is the most decorated golf writer ever by one measure: he broke the record held by World Golf Hall of Fame member Dan Jenkins with 12 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America contest.
“He’s not a simple character,” Shipnuck continued. “He’s complicated, with a lot of contradictions, as we all are. Readers will take from it what they will but it was a fun challenge to try to capture his many sides.”
Shipnuck has many heretofore unwritten details of Mickelson’s background as the great-grandson of Portuguese immigrants who was a golf savant at every level, encouraged by Al Santos, his maternal grandfather who came from hardscrabble roots on Cannery Row, caddied at Pebble Beach for 35 cents a loop, because a tuna fisherman off the coast of San Diego, eventually owned two boats and worked night shifts at a factory give his family the American dream.
Until the day his grandfather died, Mickelson gave him an autographed pin flag of every one of his victories. Mickelson still has a silver dollar his grandfather was paid for caddying at Pebble one day, but never spent.
Mickelson’s father Phil was a Navy pilot who also was a gymnast and competitive water- and snow-skier. His mother Mary was also an excellent athlete and that he would be a golfer was a given, since his birth announcement mentioned that in following his older sister Tina, the family finally had a foursome.
Mickelson loved the game so much that he ran away from home at the age of 3 because he wasn’t allowed on that particular day to go with his father to the course – packing golf balls in a suitcase with his blanket and his favorite stuffed animal.
He slept with his first golf trophy after winning a putting contest at the age of 5.
Family and giving to others were part of Mickelson’s upbringing. Readers will melt at the many examples of his charity to others, his hours of autograph signing and his devotion to his wife and children.
They also will cringe at Mickelson’s ability to blow through money – such as the government forensic audit that showed Mickelson lost $40 million gambling from 2010-14 – and his association with gamblers and other assorted characters with mob ties.
Mickelson has always had a burning desire for action, new ideas, new ventures, tinkering with golf clubs, strategy, his mind and trying to get in the heads of fellow competitors.
As Shipnuck writes in the book, “a low roar always follows him.”
Saudi comments stirred the hype
What has created the hype over the book is a phone call out of the blue Shipnuck received from Mickelson last November. Shipnuck has interviewed Mickelson many times, in news conferences and one-on-ones, including one memorable day at Mickelson’s home. But Mickelson wouldn’t give him any direct interviews for the book.
“I didn’t really need him, I had so much access over the years,” Shipnuck said.
But he took the phone call from Mickelson, who then uttered the words that shook the golf world.
“They’re scary (expletive) to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudi kingdom, which is financing LIV Golf, with Greg Norman as the frontman. “We know they killed (Washington Post reporter, Saudi native and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.
“They’ve (the PGA Tour) been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as (PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan) comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want (the SGL) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the (PGA) Tour.”
Shipnuck admits to being floored by the comments.
“When we hung up, I thought, ‘wow … I can’t believe this,’ ” he said. “I knew it would be big news.”
It’s not unusual for excerpts from a forthcoming book to appear a few weeks ahead of the publication date. But Shipnuck the author was now warring with Shipnuck the deadline reporter and the latter won the battle. On Feb. 17, Mickelson’s incendiary comments were published on the Fire Pit Collective, the media company Shipnuck held launch last year, a full three months before the book’s release date.
Trying to re-shape the game
The comments also came out two weeks after Mickelson complained to golf writer John Huggan about the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed” in an ongoing battle over control of players’ media rights.
The fallout was swift. Media and fans, Mickelson’s two biggest boosters over the years, turned on him and lambasted him for chasing “blood money.” His sponsors deserted him and Mickelson issued a statement saying he was taking time off from golf. He hasn’t played since late January and missed the Masters, where he has a past champions exemption.
Whether his exile has been entirely self-imposed or is combined with a Tour suspension is something no one knows at this point. The Tour doesn’t release details of disciplinary action against members.
Mickelson made a half-hearted attempt to claim he was talking to Shipnuck off the record but no one was buying it: a combination of the respect Shipnuck holds within the golf media community and Mickelson’s track record for making outrageous statements, such as complaining about California’s tax rate when the vast majority of his fans make in one year what he commands for corporate clinics.
“The Saudi stuff has taken on a life of its own,” Shipnuck said. “It’s brought a lot of attention to the book. but the Saudi stuff was coming to a boil in February. You never put out an excerpt three months ahead but it would have been journalistic malpractice to hold it. It was an impactful moment for the sport. Phil was threatening to reshape the entire world order of golf and I was the only one who knew how he felt. It was time to put cards on the table for fans and stakeholders in the game.”
Chris Reimer, a former PGA Tour communications manager with extensive experience in facilitating media availabilities for players, now owns his own public relations firm, the CRPR Group. He said the build-up to the book’s release has been ”a perfect storm” of events that have made the hype the most intense for any golf book he can remember.
“It’s been an amazing mix of timing, starting with Phil winning the PGA last year and everything going in with LIV Golf,” Reimer said. ”Phil would be a fascinating study anyway, because of the electrifying player he’s been, his flair, everything he’s done for the game. But take all of that, plus the events that have happened, and it all adds up to make the run-up to this book really unique.”
Reimer said Shipnuck and his publisher couldn’t have scripted it any better.
“When you’re developing a PR campaign, there are key ‘tent post moments,’” Reimer said. ”You want to stay relevant, build anticipation and stay in the news. Phil’s comments about LIV Golf, then missing the Masters, the question of whether he’s playing the PGA next week … the story keeps perpetuating itself and you want that in the PR world.”
What’s next for Phil?
Shipnuck said the intention of the book was never “a take-down” of Mickelson.
“Not even close,” he said. “I’ve always liked writing about Phil. He’s fun to be around. I’ve tried to present the truth about who he is and what he is. The energy in the interviews [with sources] was off the charts from the beginning. So many people told me so many things: funny, outrageous, ridiculous, insightful, juicy … we knew it would be a really fun read. I could just feel it.”
When Mickelson endorsed Fords, there was an advertising campaign with the slogan, “What will Phil do next?”
It’s a question Shipnuck is asking himself often.
“Phil has put his foot in his mouth plenty of times, going back to the 1991 Walker Cup when he called Irish women ugly, in Ireland,” Shipnuck said. “He can talk his way out of things. He’s very good at it. He has a long history of creating controversy and wiggling out of it. But it’s a coin flip. I’m not sure he knows at this point. If Phil comes back, I think fans will be ready to accept him and start cheering for him. They love a comeback and love a redemption story.”
But if Mickelson does begin playing LIV events, defying Monahan’s refusal to grant releases for Tour members, Shipnuck said all bets are off.
“If he goes all-in with the Saudis, after what he said about them, it’s going to be a lot harder to get back in the good graces with golf fans,” he said. “What makes Phil so fascinating is he has these warring impulses. He wants and needs to be loved and adored, but has a compulsion to be seen as the smartest guy in the room and gaming the system. He wants the love of the fans but he wants to stick it to the PGA Tour. He loves this idea of being an agent of change and reshaping the landscape of golf.”
In the end, Shipnuck said Mickelson needs to ask himself one question.
“What does he care about more?” Shipnuck said. “Being right or being loved.”