We had great weather all weekend, and a ton of activities (L and I went to watch Indy 500 qualifying, C had her birthday dinner out with friends, and we hosted a nephew birthday party), so I did not sit and watch endless hours of coverage of the PGA Championship. I saw enough to get the vibe of the tournament, though, including roughly the last hour of Phil Mickelson’s win.
I had mixed feelings about the result.
I was never a Phil fan, for a variety of reasons. The biggest was that I was a Tiger fan and never understood how you could root for Phil over him. I get that Tiger’s game wasn’t always very sexy after 2001: he became the greatest course manager in the history of the game, jumping out to leads early in tournaments and then cruising home with cautious golf while his competitors faded. Phil countered that by always going for it. But what’s fun about watching the guy that goes for it but always seemed to make the worst possible mistake in the biggest possible moment?
Then again, I think I would have rooted for Arnold Palmer over Jack Nicklaus, so I’m not exactly consistent here.
There were plenty of other problematic things about Phil over the years. They aren’t worth rehashing. You can search for them if you need the background.
I have softened towards Phil in recent years, though. He’s been very adept at transitioning to the social media age. He often seems genuinely funny rather than the older guy who tries too hard. He makes fun of himself. He skewers people who are dumb on Twitter.
Yet there are always the missteps that kept from making me a true Phil fan. Most recently there has been his very public interest in the rumored Saudi-financed competitor to the PGA. In the abstract I think a competitor to the PGA is fine. Like many, though, taking tons of money from the leadership of Saudi Arabia to undercut the tour that made you a star seems like an especially tone-deaf choice. Especially for a guy who has always let you know he thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room.
There have long been rumors that Mickelson has financial issues, and that his interest in a Saudi-backed tour is purely to dig himself out of that hole. If that’s true, I would think a golfer of his status would have endless possibilities to earn as much money as he wanted without having to take blood money from Saudi royalty.
Despite all those negative or neutral feelings towards Phil, I couldn’t help but admire his play this weekend. He struggled to begin his round Thursday. Then something switched and he was, by far, the best golfer the rest of the weekend. He held off Brooks Koepka, normally a killer in the majors. He built up a large lead on a day when almost nobody was going low. When the inevitable mistakes popped up late, he never compounded them and instead made a series of terrific recoveries to keep those errors from turning into round ruiners.
This was not a fluke caused by crazy weather conditions or an insane round that can’t be explained. It was 63 holes of terrific golf against one of the best fields of the season. The fact Phil is about to turn 51 just makes it more admirable.
In the reaction podcasts and articles I’ve reviewed, almost everyone eventually asked the question: can he still take that Saudi money after this?
I think the answer is clearly yes. PGA golfers rarely display any great commitment to doing the right thing when the opposite choice involves a huge pile of cash. Time and again Phil has shown he is as driven by money as any other golfer.
I think every athlete has the right to chase as much money as they can. For every Phil who has managed to hang around for 30 years, there are dozens of golfers who get their card for one or two seasons and then slip back into the oblivion of the feeder tours. Get that money while you can, son.
It seems like Phil should be different, though. And not just because he loves to tell people he voted for Obama and has a few progressive political views. Even if gambling and bad investments and government fines have eaten away at his nest egg, he’s still made an insane amount of money in his life as a golfer. If he truly faces financial difficulties, winning the PGA at 50 should give him more than enough new revenue streams to refill the family coffers without stooping to taking the massive cash the Saudis are throwing around in their attempts to cover up the brutality of their regime.