Inside Phil Mickelson’s Backdoor Dealings With the Saudis’ LIV Golf Superleague: “They’re Scary Motherf–kers”

Inside Phil Mickelson’s Backdoor Dealings With the Saudis’ LIV Golf Superleague: “They’re Scary Motherf–kers”

Phil Mickelson has always been obsessed with money, owing to a life of conspicuous consumption (his own Gulf-stream IV, etc.), a visceral hatred of paying taxes, and a self-described gambling addiction. In 2013, he made a flippant comment to reporters bitching about California’s state income tax, touching off one of the many uproars in his messy public life. Mickelson’s next stop on the PGA Tour after that comment went public was at a pretournament press conference at Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California. Before going into the media center, he huddled in the parking lot for nearly an hour with his publicist and a couple of Tour officials, plotting the best way to talk himself out of yet another jam of his own making.

One of the other assembled men said, “The problem, Phil, is that fans don’t want to hear complaining from a guy making forty million dollars a year—”

Mickelson cut him off: “It’s fifty million.”

Mickelson had good reason to keep track of every dollar. In 2016, he became ensnared in the insider trading case of the renowned gambler Billy Walters. Named as a relief defendant, he repaid to the government $932,738.12 for his “alleged ill-gotten gains” plus $105,291.69 in interest but was never charged with wrongdoing. As part of their investigation, government investigators conducted a forensic audit of his finances from 2010 to 2014. According to a source with direct access to the documents, Mickelson had claimed $40 million in gambling losses during that period. That may or may not explain why he chased the PGL money and then the Saudi dough so hard.

But Mickelson had other motivations for wanting to watch the PGA Tour burn while siding with the guys holding the matches. He had long butted heads with Tour commissioner Tim Finchem and his successor, Jay Monahan. He hated how bloated the Tour had become. Brandel Chamblee recalls a long-ago B.C. Open at which he and Mickelson had been paired. “Knowing that I was on the Player Advisory Council,” says Chamblee, “he spent the whole time in my ear saying the PGA Tour should be reduced to only thirty players—nothing but the stars. He was totally oblivious to the fact that it would eliminate my job.” Mickelson hated the opposite-field events conducted for the Tour middle class in the same weeks as the World Golf Championships, rightfully pointing out that they diluted the Tour’s overall product. He hated putting on a show for the fans for two practice rounds and two tournament rounds, all the while signing a million autographs but not earning a dollar in the weeks he missed the cut. He really hated that the PGA Tour barred players from accepting appearance fees, whereas every other major circuit allowed the top players to scoop them up. He hated that in his best year he had earned “only” $6.9 million on the Tour while the stars in team sports were making five and six and seven times that. As he became a snarky social media presence, he came to hate the Tour’s stringent media rights policies, which prevented him from monetizing his own highlights. He hated that the NBA was making money for its players by selling NFTs while the Tour, per usual, lagged behind. Both in public and in private he raged against all of that, but Finchem and then Monahan simply patted him on the head and sent him on his way like a petulant child. Mickelson longed to be validated and even celebrated as an agent of change. He needed to be right and for the world to know it. The Saudis were the perfect bedfellows: desperate for star power and leadership to launch their breakaway league, they were happy to give Mickelson everything he had always wanted.

The week of the 2021 PGA Championship altered the trajectory of Mickelson’s life—and of professional golf. Majed Al-Souror, CEO of Golf Saudi and the Saudi Golf Federation, rented a big house near the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island Golf Resort in South Carolina, and a steady procession of agents and players swung by to listen to sales pitches. Many had been down a similar road with the Premier Golf League, the would-be competitor to the PGA Tour that never got off the ground, but the PGL founder Andy Gardiner had been selling merely an idea and the dream of future riches; Al-Souror had cash on the barrelhead, and loads of it. The numbers were so big as to provoke disbelief, even giddiness. On the putting green and driving range, in the locker room and parking lot, there was a new refrain: “‘What’s your number?’” says James Hahn, the PGA Tour veteran. “Everyone had a number.” For many it was strictly theoretical but still a fun exercise.

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