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Golf

Phil Mickelson Really Stepped In It

AL MUROOJ, SAUDI ARABIA - FEBRUARY 01: Phil Mickelson of The USA during a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club on February 01, 2022 in Al Murooj, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Oisin Keniry/Getty Images)
Oisin Keniry/Getty Images

Phil Mickelson’s comments in support of a Saudi-financed breakaway golf league have backfired in spectacular fashion, not only shutting the league down before it could even be announced but also imperiling Mickelson’s existing, lucrative golf career in the process. It is worth spelling out, again, that Mickelson’s needle-threading is a nigh-unparalleled work of rhetorical self-immolation, a masterclass in pissing off everyone on all sides by saying something true. His genius was saying, “They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” in support of a theoretical Saudi golf league. Anyway, since the spectacular reversal that ended the Saudi league (for the moment), Mickelson has since faced a good deal of fallout of his own.

The day after Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson about-faced and reaffirmed their commitments to the PGA Tour, Mickelson issued a lengthy apology for his fiery takes, which he characterized as “off-record comments being shared out of context and without my consent” (more on this later). Mickelson addressed his sponsors and said he wanted to give them the opportunity to “pause or end the relationship.” Four of his major sponsors have happily taken him up on this.

British-Dutch accounting firm KPMG, which has done major business in Saudi Arabia for 30 years, was the first to drop Mickelson, who’d been sponsored by the firm for 14 years. “We wish him the best,” they said in a brief statement. Workday, which also does business in Saudi Arabia, had sponsored Mickelson for four years until this week when they announced a mutual decision to part ways. They thanked him, while noting, “we continue to wish him and his family all the best.” Heineken USA, whose Amstel Light brand sponsored Mickelson for two years, said “we wish all the best” when announcing Mickelson had been dropped. The most consequential brand to distance themselves from Mickelson was Callaway, who’d been Lefty’s club sponsor since 2004. “Callaway does not condone Phil Mickelson’s comments and we were very disappointed in his choice of words,” the brand said. “At this time we have agreed to pause our partnership and will re-evaluate our ongoing relationship at a later date.” They did not wish him the best, though I suppose they might get back together so there’s no need.

This is not the end of Mickelson’s list of woes. On Saturday, the Desert Sun reported that Mickelson will no longer serve as the ambassador for the American Express tournament in La Quinta, and that the Mickelson Foundation will no longer be the tournament’s “charitable arm.” Mickelson set up the foundation in 2020 specifically to serve as part of the Desert Classic, and he had an agreement to host the tournament through 2024.

Alan Shipnuck, the writer to whom Mickelson made his infamous comments, defended himself against any idea that he misquoted Mickelson or otherwise did the golfer dirty. He said the suggestion that Mickelson was off the record was “completely false,” and detailed exactly how the call went down. “Not once in our texts or when we got on the phone did Mickelson request to go off-the-record and I never consented to it,” he told the Telegraph. “If he had asked, I would have pushed back hard, as this was obviously material I wanted for the book.  Mickelson simply called me up and opened a vein. To claim now that the comments were off-the-record is false and duplicitous.”

So here Mickelson stands, unable to jump ship because he accidentally torpedoed a potential alternative to the PGA Tour, and facing blowback from sponsors who value their Saudi relationships over their sponsorship of Mickelson. Being mercenary can still get you pretty far in this world, but only if you’re not so obvious about it.