What’s Phil Mickelson thinking?
Over the past 13 or so months, that’s been one of the most interesting questions in golf. Mickelson’s provocative public rhetoric first bubbled over last February when he popped off to Golf Digest‘s John Huggan about the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed.” Two weeks later, he became the subject of international headlines after Alan Shipnuck released a book excerpt in which Mickelson called LIV’s Saudi backers “scary m—–f——.” What was he thinking then, with LIV’s future suddenly in jeopardy?
That pair of two-word phrases followed him around in the months that followed. What was Mickelson thinking as he took a leave of absence from professional golf, quietly suspended from the PGA Tour? What was he thinking as he sat at home during Masters week, his first time missing golf’s biggest tournament in 28 years? What was he thinking as he skipped his title defense at the PGA Championship, a year after one of the most remarkable wins in golf history? What was he thinking as LIV made its controversial launch, with Mickelson as its figurehead?
Fast-forward a year and we have plenty more questions for Mickelson. What does he think of the changes the PGA Tour has enacted in his absence? How about his old friends at the USGA?
This latest version of Mickelson stepped to the microphone earlier this week ahead of LIV’s Tucson event. He’s notably slimmer now than he was last summer, when he re-emerged at LIV London and then at the U.S. Open. He’s clean-shaven. And as he spoke it became clear that the Hy Flyers captain is trying a different tack now: understated, open-minded, even deferential.
What are his thoughts on the USGA’s ground-breaking proposal to roll back the ball?
“I haven’t read up on it,” Mickelson said. “I haven’t looked into it. I haven’t really, like, looked at the data, so I don’t really have an opinion on it right now.”
No opinion?! Phil Mickelson? This is the same guy who has railed on everything from tax law to joggers.
Okay, how ’bout the Tour changes? Last summer, Mickelson couldn’t resist taking a shot at the Tour’s prize-money increase: “It’s great that they magically found a couple hundred million; that’s awesome,” he said. This time? He offered his praise.
“I think that it’s really a good thing. I’m happy to see it. I’m happy to see it for the Tour,” he said. “I think there will always be a need and a want for traditional golf. And there’s always an opportunity to innovate and to allow LIV to be additive and create something new and different for the game of golf.”
That’s an interesting point of emphasis. LIV CEO Greg Norman has used the word “additive” since the league’s debut last summer, but for months it felt like LIV was challenging the Tour for world dominance, full stop. Mickelson’s language here presents LIV as an alternative and a supplement rather than a direct competitor.
Still, Mickelson couldn’t resist sneaking in a dig at the Tour, implying that they’d copied elements of LIV’s model.
“I also think the changes bring the best players about more often,” he said. “I think that’s what fans want and what the sponsors want. They want to know what they are buying, and those are all things that LIV have provided for their sponsors and television and so forth. I think it’s a good model to follow, and I’m glad that they are.”
I think it’s a good model to follow, and I’m glad that they are.
A reporter posed the idea that if the Tour had made its changes a year earlier, LIV never would have happened. We’d love to know what Mickelson thinks of this; it’s no secret that he’d long lobbied the PGA Tour for reduced fields with an emphasis on star power. But here he stayed positive, too.
“Then I’m thankful it didn’t happen a year ago,” he said. “I’m really happy with the way LIV has brought about new change to the game. Because this team aspect is something that we really never saw as a possibility in golf until LIV came along.”
Mickelson has felt energized by that aspect, he said. He’s enjoyed the camaraderie.
A welcome byproduct of his 2021 PGA Championship win is that Mickelson is exempt into major championships for years to come. And while he missed multiple majors last season, that’s unlikely to be the case this year. Once again, he resisted poking the bear.
“We’re all grateful that we’re able to participate in the Masters and all the majors because there was a lot of talk that that might not happen,” he said. “But here we are, able to do that, and we are all grateful for that as well.”
There have been plenty of questions surrounding tension at the Champions Dinner and the overall LIV vs. Tour dynamic. But “grateful” doesn’t sound combative. Grateful sounds deferential.
“No expectations,” he added. “We are grateful to just be able to play and compete and be a part of it. A lot of the people there that are playing and competing in the Masters are friend for decades, and I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”
Mickelson also leaned into the idea that LIV could change. He teased the idea of changing its events from 54 to 72 holes to appease the Official World Golf Ranking, a notable possibility given 54 — LIV in Roman numerals — is literally the name of the Tour. Mickelson used the word “fluidity” repeatedly.
There were still signs of the chip that rests on Mickelson’s shoulder; it’s clear he’s eager to prove that he was right about some things. “We were told, Oh, well, we’re not going to have a TV deal. Well we have a TV deal with 120 million homes and that’s just in the US,” he said.
Asked about players like Cameron Smith and Bryson DeChambeau joining, he walked that line again. Grateful — and validated.
“We were told, LIV won’t ever get the top players, and gosh, we have so many top players in the world that it’s a quality product, and it’s something that we are all grateful for. Just another thing we are all grateful for.”
As for his new look? That’s probably where Mickelson spoke the most freely. He emphasized that he has put wellness at the forefront of his lifestyle of late. He’s more careful about what he puts in his body.
“I try to allow myself to recover and get in better shape and to eat less, curb my appetite,” he said. He expressed some regret about not making those changes earlier — “I don’t like looking back and saying, ‘What if I had done that?’” he said — but better late than never.
“Here I am today and taking a lot more accountability and allowing myself to play and compete at a much higher level than a lot of people could at this age.”
There’s no doubt about that. Where questions remain are around LIV’s future and how it plans to position itself. We haven’t heard much from Norman of late, leaving us with Mickelson’s words as something close to official LIV policy. Is LIV intentionally playing nice? Or is this Mickelson looking to lower the temperature in the room, for his own good and for the good of his league?
We still don’t necessarily know what Mickelson is thinking. But we hear what he’s saying, and that’s revealing nonetheless.