David Walsh: Phil Mickelson’s fall from grace adds to the mystery of unknowable golf great

Within the unauthorised biography of Phil Mickelson are details of how the fallen golf icon split from his long-time caddie, which may solve the mystery of his true character, writes DAVID WALSH.

Phil Mickelson with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 2021 PGA Championship. His fall from grace after the triumph of a year ago has been stunning. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson with the Wanamaker Trophy after winning the 2021 PGA Championship. His fall from grace after the triumph of a year ago has been stunning. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

For those who fall from grace I’m guessing one of the toughest things is that in the time it takes to bat an eyelid, you have been redefined. On this weekend 12 months ago Phil Mickelson achieved the most astonishing victory of his career. At 50 he won the US PGA Championship to become the oldest winner of a major.

On Tuesday in Tulsa they held the tournament’s champions’ dinner, which Mickelson should have hosted. He didn’t attend because he wasn’t in Tulsa. “It was a fun evening. Phil was not missed,” said Dave Stockton, winner of the US PGA Championship in 1970 and 1976. “Phil would have been a big distraction.”

Et tu, Dave.

Eight years ago Stockton, 80, was Mickelson’s putting coach.

Mickelson hasn’t been seen on a golf course since early February, his self-imposed exile coming after golf writer Alan Shipnuck revealed the detail of a conversation he’d had with Mickelson three months before. During their chat Mickelson called the Saudis “scary motherf--kers”, said they execute people “for being gay” and have a horrible record on human rights but claimed it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the PGA Tour.

Mickelson told Shipnuck that he was speaking with the Saudis to get a better deal for the top players. Once Shipnuck wrote about their conversation, Mickelson’s life changed.

People were appalled he could be flippant about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. After that, Mickelson disappeared from view. An apology that said his comments had been “off-the-record” and used out of context only made things worse. Mickelson dealt with the Saudis because there was the possibility of making a lot of money.

Phil Mickelson celebrates on the 18th green after winning the PGA Championship one year ago. He is now a PGA Tour outcast. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson celebrates on the 18th green after winning the PGA Championship one year ago. He is now a PGA Tour outcast. Picture: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

In relation to the conversation with Shipnuck, I’ve got some sympathy for Mickelson.

Shipnuck had been looking to speak with him for more than a year about a biography he was writing about the player that was published last week. Mickelson fudged at first. Shipnuck asked again. Eventually the player said no but then last November messaged the journalist and they agreed to talk on the phone.

What happened next would be an interesting subject for a journalism class. We know the call lasted an hour and from the amount of material he attributed to Mickelson, it is likely Shipnuck recorded it. Mickelson says what he said was off the record, Shipnuck says he will go to his grave certain it was not.

It is not difficult to imagine what might have happened here: Mickelson thinks they’re having an informal chat, Shipnuck believes that because the player hasn’t said anything’s off the record, well then it’s not. Did Shipnuck remind Mickelson they were on the record and not just shooting the breeze? I ask this because journalists often find themselves drawn into informal conversations with interviewees who speak with exaggerated candour to avoid a more formal interchange.

You find yourself saying, “Hold on, I need to ask you about that on the record.” Could Mickelson have truly believed he was on the record? Even someone as forthright as he is going to think twice before publicly calling the Saudis “scary motherf--kers"?

Journalists aren’t compelled to remind their interviewees about the consequences of what they’re saying, but it happens all the time. We want to be certain they know what they’re getting into. Shipnuck didn’t give Mickelson this opportunity.

Phil Mickelson during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia, this year. Picture: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia, this year. Picture: Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Last week I read Shipnuck’s book Phil, The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar. It is terrific fun, 19 chapters that read like Mickelson’s swashbuckling back nine in the final round of the 2004 Masters.

Any fan reading it will be able to tell Mickelson stories for the rest of their lives. There’s the match against tough guy Jeff Thomas in the 1990 US Amateur at Cherry Hills. Thomas had a reputation for getting inside an opponent’s head and that day he was expected to use every trick against Mickelson.

First hole, Thomas has a 40-foot putt for par while Mickelson has a four-footer for birdie. As Thomas begins to line up his putt, Mickelson says, “Pick it up.” The concession was not as ridiculous as it seemed. As Mickelson stroked his four-footer into the hole, Thomas was left to wonder if he belonged on the same golf course as this boy wonder.

Playing at the 1991 Walker Cup in Portmarnock, north of Dublin, Mickelson was asked about a wayward drive that ended up in the rough. “You don’t want to end up there, the Irish women are not that attractive,” he said. That, as you can guess, went down well with the locals.

Shipnuck charts his subject’s journey through golf with Mickelson-like enthusiasm. To enjoy the ride, you need to love the game because there’s a lot of golf. He was the most talented player of his generation but not close to being the greatest. That was Tiger Woods. Shipnuck quotes a distinction made by Brandel Chamblee, the former player who is now a high-profile TV analyst.

“Phil wants to hit an amazing shot, all Tiger wants to do is hit the right shot. Phil is a gambler. Tiger is the house, and he knows the house always wins. Phil thinks he knows more than the house.”

Phil Mickelson with former caddie Jim Mackay at the 2017 Masters. Picture: Rob Carr/Getty Images
Phil Mickelson with former caddie Jim Mackay at the 2017 Masters. Picture: Rob Carr/Getty Images

Reading the book there are times when Mickelson’s generosity and sense of fun makes you want to like him. Other times when his lack of humility and smart-alec nature are hard to stomach. The clincher for this reader came in the detail of his break-up with longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay.

At the time Mickelson said, “Amy and I, and our children, will always think of Bones, [his wife] Jen, [their children] Oliver and Emma as family. We are looking forward to sharing life and friendship with them for ever.” According to Shipnuck, Mackay wanted people to know their relationship fractured over money: Mickelson owed his caddie $US900,000 which he was slow to pay.

Eventually he coughed up two payments of $US400,000 but their relationship had been terminally damaged.

How could a man who between endorsements and prize money earned an estimated $US900 million not treat his caddie properly? Running through the book is the story of Mickelson’s love of gambling and his passion for big bets. Shipnuck says he was told by a source with access to documents that Mickelson lost $US40 million gambling from 2010 to 2014.

So he shortchanges his caddie, sells the Gulfstream, needs to talk to the Saudis. And all of this because he had a gambling issue that cost him a fortune. Can we be sure? “Nobody knows Phil Mickelson. Nobody. I spent 25 years standing next to the guy and he’s still a total mystery to me,” says “Bones” Mackay.

Now if ever there was an honest autobiography, I would certainly buy that.

– The Sunday Times

Originally published as David Walsh: Phil Mickelson’s fall from grace adds to the mystery of unknowable golf great