A half-century ago, novelist Mario Puzo imagined a character not unlike present-day Phil Mickelson: a once-loyal soldier who fancies himself the smartest guy in the room but who, feeling underappreciated and shortchanged, comes undone in a bumbling effort to help hostile forces muscle in on the family business. The fictional Fredo and the real-life Phredo also share another trait, albeit one easily forgotten as Mickelson confidently chirps at critics on social media — a willingness to overlook murder and abuse when it suits their selfish interests.
He was explicitly clear on that when speaking about his Saudi benefactors at LIV Golf to journalist Alan Shipnuck. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay,” he said in comments made public 15 months ago. “Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
There is no ambiguity in those words and Mickelson disputed only whether they were on the record, not the substance. His ambivalence about the atrocities of the Saudi regime — worse, his awareness and casual dismissal of them — binds Mickelson to Greg Norman as the Lehman Brothers of moral bankruptcy.
Amid the outrage that greeted his comments, Mickelson went to ground, but the shameless can’t be shamed for long. Today, he brazenly positions himself and his fellow LIV players as victims, tweeting at critics (real and imagined) with a frequency that suggests a man hoping the public has a short memory, or simply a man in free fall.
He insists that criticism of LIV is a matter of commerce (an established tour against an upstart), a matter of conspiracy (an established tour trying to prevent the upstart gaining market traction), or a matter of collusion (sundry entities and individuals plotting with the established tour to smother the upstart). What he dodges is that objections to LIV can also genuinely be a matter of conscience.
Mickelson gladly hides behind the false equivalencies and straw man arguments peddled by the drooling dipshits who tweet things like “What about China?” “Do you put gas in your car?” and “I bet you use Uber!” Ignoring individual responsibility and multiple degrees of consumer separation helps him justify a decision to work directly for a man who commissions murders and abuses, to help sportswash those depredations. Which he does: LIV Golf is wholly financed by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, of which Mohammad bin Salman is chairman. The same MBS who ordered Khashoggi dissected.
In one respect, Mickelson is a valuable foot soldier for the Saudis, who appreciate moral ciphers eager to abase themselves for a check. But his social media posts alleging widespread collusion — pity Fred Ridley, Seth Waugh and Mike Whan, who find themselves indicted alongside me — highlight how several billion dollars has been torched on a product driven more by personal grievance than a viable business model. Perhaps the Saudis believed they were buying the popular Mickelson of two decades ago, only to receive delivery of the lamentable caricature of today.
The ease with which Mickelson pursues social media mortification hints at a man who knows his legacy has been destroyed, and perhaps one who fears more rough sledding ahead. Billy Walters will publish a tell-all memoir in August, six years after he went to prison for an insider trading scheme that implicated Mickelson, who had to repay the government $1 million. Walters may prove to be Phredo’s Moe Green, a Las Vegas entanglement that won’t end well.
Still, it’s difficult to imagine any revelations could further damage the reputation of someone who has made clear that murder, dismemberment and human rights abuses aren’t deal breakers if there’s leverage in it for him.
Mickelson’s Twitter tirades don’t rank as his most ill-advised misuse of a smartphone, but they cement the perception of a once-beloved and respected star who, like a Just For Men junkie, is vainly trying to recapture what is irretrievably lost.
For him, character is now just something on a Twitter keyboard.