What started out as a typical Thursday morning for PGA Tour players, their caddies, coaches and agents, as they prepared for the start of last week’s Genesis Invitational, quickly turned into an unusual day.
The practice range at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles was calm, as those in the field methodically warmed up and went through their routines. Then cellphones started going off up and down the line. The Fire Pit Collective’s Alan Shipnuck had just published explosive quotes from Phil Mickelson about the proposed Saudi-financed Super Golf League being formed and his willingness to ignore the alleged human rights violations of its backers.
“There was definitely a buzz on the range,” said one prominent PGA Tour agent. “Somebody sent it to me, and everybody else’s phones were getting it either from buddies, other players, associates, whomever. It got everybody’s attention.”
In his conversation with Shipnuck, Mickelson said that despite knowing the Saudis, who he called “scary motherf—ers,” had killed Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi, a U.S. resident, and that the country has a deplorable record on human rights, according to watchdog groups around the world, Mickelson was using the potential opportunity to join the new circuit as leverage against the PGA Tour.
“This wasn’t just Phil being Phil,” one PGA Tour player said. “This was a failed coup. How in the hell do you come back from that?”
And just five days later, everything changed dramatically for Mickelson, who apologized, lost at least two of his longtime sponsors and maybe more and announced he’s taking time away from golf “to prioritize the ones he loves most and to work on being the man he wants to be.” Mickelson contends his comments to Shipnuck were meant to be off the record and were taken out of context, which the author disputes.
“Although it doesn’t look this way now given my recent comments, my actions throughout this process have always been with the best interest of golf, my peers, sponsors, and fans,” Mickelson said in the apology. “There is the problem of off record comments being shared out of context and without my consent, but the bigger issue is that I used words I sincerely regret that do not reflect my true feelings or intentions. It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words. I’m beyond disappointed and will make every effort to self-reflect and learn from this.”
A member of Mickelson’s management team didn’t respond to ESPN’s request for an interview, other than sending the statement he released on social media on Tuesday.
Mickelson’s apology said he had given all his sponsors the option to either pause or get out of their relationship, because he doesn’t want to compromise their business based on his words. Shortly after he issued the statement, his longtime sponsor, KPMG, said the two sides had mutually decided to part ways. Not long after that, Amstel Light followed.
“We made the decision to end Amstel Light’s partnership with Phil Mickelson,” the company told ESPN on Wednesday. “We wish him all the best.”
Others, such as Callaway, Rolex and Mizzen + Main, haven’t commented on their relationship with him.
Mickelson’s 530-word statement never mentioned the PGA Tour, which he accused of “obnoxious greed,” or commissioner Jay Monahan. Brandel Chamblee, a former PGA Tour player and now an outspoken analyst on Golf Channel, wrote this on Twitter: “Just read Phil’s statement, it’s 6 paragraphs, the 1st paragraph sets the stage for him being a victim, the 2nd paragraph is him pretending to be an activist, the 3rd/4th paragraphs are about spin and damage control/money and the 5th and 6th are him saying he’s a good guy.”
Then on Sunday, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, two of the biggest names connected to the Saudi-backed tour being fronted by former world No. 1 and two-time Open champion Greg Norman, both made public statements pledging allegiance to the PGA Tour. It was two more devastating blows to the potential of the Saudi League and the star power it hoped to attract.
“I don’t want to kick someone while he’s down obviously, but I thought [Mickelson’s comments] were naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant,” McIlroy said on Sunday. “A lot of words to describe that interaction he had with Shipnuck. It was just very surprising and disappointing. Sad. I’m sure he’s sitting at home sort of rethinking his position and where he goes from here.
“Who’s left? I mean, there’s no one.”
Those might be perhaps the biggest remaining questions in the entire ordeal: What becomes of the Super Golf League, and what does the PGA Tour do with Mickelson? The six-time major champion, popularly known as Lefty, had one of the defining moments of his career in May 2021, when he became the oldest major champion by winning the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island at 50 years old. Now, he has left fellow players dumbfounded, publicly questioning his motives and willingness to overlook the sins of his money men.
Perhaps most damaging was that Mickelson told Shipnuck that he had enlisted the help of three other players — whom he wouldn’t identify — to help pay for attorneys to draw up the SGL’s operating agreement. Mickelson wasn’t just joining a rival league; he was helping create one. Mickelson hasn’t played in the past four PGA Tour events and is now taking a break from the game for an unspecified amount of time. Whether that is a voluntary break, or a disciplinary measure handed down by the PGA Tour, is unclear. The PGA Tour does not publicly announce suspensions.
“Phil’s a polarizing figure,” a Tour agent said. “Some people care what Phil thinks and what he has to say, but a lot of guys couldn’t give two s—- about what Phil has to say about anything. Because Phil has kind of been front and center at all of it, I think the statements that were released and attributed to him certainly made people say, ‘Wow, that can’t be good.'”
While McIlroy said he didn’t want to kick Mickelson while he was down, other PGA Tour players have been more than willing to pile on. Six-time PGA Tour winner and former FedEx Cup champion Billy Horschel, in a podcast with the Golf Channel’s Matt Adams, called Mickelson’s comments “idiotic.” Horschel took exception to Mickelson’s characterization about the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed” and his claims that it is allegedly hoarding $20 billion to $30 billion that could go to players.
“I may not see all the numbers that a player director may see in board meetings, but I see enough to understand that the money is being used correctly and it’s being used how the PGA Tour says it is,” said Horschel, a member of the tour’s Player Advisory Council. “It’s tough because this guy — no I say this guy –– Phil has done so great, and he’s been a great ambassador to the game of golf, and I honestly feel that he’s hurting his reputation and he’s tarnishing his legacy a little bit.”
Unintentionally, Mickelson’s comments might have thwarted the master plan for the Saudi-financed league that had been gaining momentum over the past several months. Players had been talking behind the scenes about its potential and the money involved. Things had progressed, one longtime PGA Tour caddie told ESPN, to the point that players had signed on to join.
The proposed breakaway circuit is being financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which the Saudi government has listed as worth more than $500 billion. Meanwhile, Norman’s company, LIV Golf Investments, has already pumped $300 million into the Asian Tour. The Super Golf League would be connected to the Asian Tour, which would allow its players to earn Official World Golf Ranking points and potentially compete in major championships.
Norman’s representative didn’t respond to a request for an interview or comment.
When Monahan made a stern warning to players about a ban for joining the breakaway league in May 2021, Augusta National Golf Club and the United States Golf Association each issued statements supporting the PGA Tour, although neither addressed whether players who compete outside the Tour would be permitted to play in the Masters and U.S. Open. PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh told reporters last year that leaving the PGA Tour would make players ineligible for the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup.
“If someone wants to play on a Ryder Cup for the U.S., they’re going to need to be a member of the PGA of America, and they get that membership through being a member of the tour,” Waugh said before last year’s PGA Championship at Kiawah Island. “I believe the Europeans feel the same way, and so I don’t know that we can be more clear than that. It’s a little murkier in our championship, but to play, from a U.S. perspective, you also have to be a member of the tour and the PGA of America to play in our championship, and we don’t see that changing.”
Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A, which oversees The Open, said the organization was “fully supportive of the European [now DP World Tour] and the PGA Tour.”
Now, largely because of Mickelson’s comments, those concerns might be moot. What was meant to be a super league that would tempt some of the PGA Tour’s biggest names — and potentially their corporate sponsors — with more money and a player-friendly experience was suddenly thrown a roadblock by what he said and his very public admission of what joining the league actually meant.
The Saudi League went from gaining momentum, to the point that sources believed an announcement about the league’s creation was fast approaching, to pumping the brakes on that momentum in a matter of weeks.
Slowing down doesn’t mean it will go away, however, as some Tour players believe the league will still somehow find a way.
“I think it’s going to still keep going. I think there will still be talk. I think, everyone talks about money. They’ve got enough of it,” Brooks Koepka said on Wednesday at the Honda Classic. “I don’t see it backing down; they can just double up and they’ll figure it out. They’ll get their guys. Somebody will sell out and go to it.”
The reason is simple: Money. From the start, for Mickelson and all the players who agreed to sign or were interested enough to listen, the figures were too big too ignore. While the downfall came swift, thanks to Mickelson, the build up to get here was a long time in coming.
The money started talking
This whispers, according to Tour players who spoke with ESPN, about a potential new league go as far back as five years ago. Every time, though, the possibility would pass in the wind and never materialize.
“I knew the way these guys have operated and it’s all been smoke and mirrors and they’ve created rumors and spread rumors and tried to play one guy off another,” McIlroy said. “And [they] said one thing to one manager and said a different thing to another manager and just sort of created this chaos and confusion around that group, and everyone’s questioning everyone else’s motives so they’re just kind of playing everyone off one another.”
Because Norman and his company hadn’t announced their plans publicly, and their talks with PGA Tour players and their agents were being conducted behind closed doors, Tour executives felt as though they didn’t know exactly what they were fighting against. There were published reports in Europe that the Saudi organizers had offered DeChambeau as much as $135 million to sign on, and perhaps even more to Johnson, a two-time major champion. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph, Ian Poulter, a European Ryder Cup hero who hasn’t won on tour in nearly four years, was offered $30 million.
“[The Players Championship] in March last year, it seemed really, really strong. I can remember a few big-name guys coming in and talking to the [PGA Tour] commissioner about the things that they had heard,” a PGA Tour caddie said. “So, that was the first time, like, OK, wow, this is pretty in-depth, whatever’s happening here. And it seems like something that people need to be worried about, or at least thinking about.”
There was suddenly a shift in how the new circuit was being talked about, the frequency and the infrastructure of the potential league having an actual blueprint.
Caddies and players heard the talk in their circles up until the fall of 2021, when the chatter went somewhat silent. The players interested in joining the Saudi league were now talking in private about their potential deals and how it would all work if they were to jump ship.
There were conversations that took place in recent months in secrecy that most weren’t aware of. One source told ESPN handshake deals were made and some agreements were reached in the beginning of February at the Saudi International tournament at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, Saudi Arabia.
“Guys have signed, guys have agreed and guys are going to do it. And we haven’t really known that before, just kind of rumors and probables and that kind of stuff,” the caddie said. “So what happened at Saudi [International] is guys were wined and dined, they were treated and the league was talked about and some financial promises were made. I do know some of the numbers and the PGA Tour cannot match it. But it comes back to what do you want? What are you after?”
Last week, Shipnuck tweeted that as many as 20 Tour players had committed to join Norman’s circuit and an announcement about the new league could come as early as next month at The Players Championship. Sources told ESPN that timeline seemed aggressive, and it was more likely that an announcement would come after the Masters in April. But without most of the sport’s top young players, most of whom have committed to staying with the PGA Tour, how much of a legitimate threat was the SGL going to be?
“I don’t think they put the right leadership team in from the start,” McIlroy said. “In all honesty, like the epicenter of the professional world still revolves around Tiger, he is the epicenter, and if they don’t have him … like who knows when he’s going to play again, but if they don’t have his blessing even, it’s got no chance. Then roll in Jon Rahm, the best player in the world, Collin Morikawa, No. 2, me who’s been up there for a while, everyone else, I mean, yeah.”
Woods is the unquestioned star, who spoke out in November in support of the PGA Tour. He holds a cachet that Mickelson doesn’t. Players have taken into account what Woods thinks and has said about the league.
Tour player Pat Perez told reporters last week that Woods’ opinion matters, and he, along with other players on Tour, would follow his lead.
“If [Woods] doesn’t want to do it, Rory doesn’t want to do it and if you don’t have the top kids doing it, I just don’t know how much water it’s going to hold anyway,” Perez said. “They’re not going to follow Phil, they’re not going to follow DeChambeau, unfortunately. You need the young crew right now to go do this thing.
“I don’t know exactly what Phil … why he’s got so much hate towards the Tour. I mean, he’s damn near 52 now.”
Some players, such as Australia’s Adam Scott and England’s Lee Westwood, have acknowledged being intrigued by the SGL’s shorter schedule and condensed events. Westwood told the media he had signed a non-disclosure agreement and wasn’t sure if he could answer any questions about the league or offers to other players. He isn’t alone. Other players, like Jason Kokrak, have also publicly hinted they have signed NDAs with the Saudi group.
A PGA Tour player told ESPN last week that the new circuit will have 14 tournaments, each only consisting of 54 holes as opposed to 72 holes played on Tour. Many of the events would be played in the U.S., according to The Washington Post, some courses vying to play host to events are those owned by former President Donald Trump.
The Saudi league would have shotgun starts, meaning all the players would start at the same time on different holes. Currently, the Tour has specific tee times for its players, with some groups going out in the morning, some in the afternoon over the first two rounds. Groups are typically paired by their place on the leaderboard for the third and fourth rounds. The early-round tee times impact the outcome of a tournament if the weather shifts or if conditions change from one group to the next, which is why the shotgun start would be appealing.
A source told ESPN that there also might be team ownership stakes for players who jump to the Saudi-backed circuit, similar to how Formula 1 racing works. Individual players would be competing for tournament purses worth as much as $20 million to $30 million, but there also would be a team aspect to the new league as well. As many as 48 players would be divided among teams. Each team would have an owner — whether it’s a player, corporation or outside entity. The team owner would have opportunities to sell sponsorships that the team would represent. Trades and free agency might also be part of the potential format.
“If someone’s not playing well and he’s in the elite team and you get a young kid who just played well and he’s coming up, the elite player could lose his spot,” the caddie said.
For now, though, the Saudi-backed circuit seems to be missing the stars it hoped to put at the top of each team. Mickelson’s statement didn’t make their efforts to sign top players any easier, either.
‘I don’t know what Phil’s doing’
In November, as Shipnuck, a former golf writer with Sports Illustrated, was wrapping up writing an unauthorized biography of Mickelson, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,” he received a text message from Mickelson, who to that point had refused to sit down for an interview for the book.
Shipnuck recalled the text conversation during a podcast on the Fire Pit Collective website this week, saying that Mickelson had reached out to talk about the PGA Tour, media rights and NFTs. The two set up a call, and according to Shipnuck, Mickelson never said their conversation was off the record or for background purposes only.
“He just started talking,” Shipnuck said on the podcast. “At that point, it is an on-the-record interview with a biographer. That’s not even in question.”
During that conversation, Mickelson acknowledged that the Saudi Arabians were “scary” to deal with.
“… They killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson said during their conversation, according to Shipnuck. “They execute people over there for being gay. 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.”
Mickelson’s comments, published this week, were met with immediate backlash by other Tour players. The Tour declined to comment.
“I don’t know what Phil’s doing,” Perez said. “I don’t know what he’s doing. I know he’s not speaking for me and, you know, I actually really don’t care what he has to say about anything because I just don’t. He doesn’t speak for me.”
Added the longtime Tour caddie: “First of all, [I was] shocked, in disbelief. Phil’s been so good about always saying and doing the right thing for the last 32 years and then this. I don’t want to pretend like I understand where his animosity, entitlement and everything else comes from. I don’t want to go into that. It just made me sad. I’m just in shock and disbelief by what he said and completely and utterly obviously disagree and I think it’s a shame.”
After Shipnuck published Mickelson’s comments, the author said he received one text message from him.
“He was displeased,” Shipnuck said on the podcast. “He tried to sort of go down that road, ‘Oh, I thought this was a private conversation between you and I.’ I shut that down really fast. His heart wasn’t really in it anyway. He knows the truth. I don’t know what he’s going to say going forward. He knows that this was an on-the-record conversation and it was for the book, and he never asked for any of this being private.”
During the phone conversation with Shipnuck, Mickelson admitted he wasn’t sure he wanted to be part of this league. Mickelson was, he said, more interested in the opportunity it presented.
“I’m not even sure I want it to succeed,” Mickelson said of the Saudi-financed league. “But just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the tour.”
A few days after the comments were made public, the entire scenario had changed. Still, the threat to the PGA Tour did not just go away the second Mickelson’s quotes become public knowledge.
The end of one league and changes to the existing?
Just because some of the golf’s biggest stars aren’t leaving, it doesn’t mean the Tour can ignore what happened. That could lead to significant changes and a new chapter for the PGA Tour. Players still want more transparency from the Tour and alterations to the financial structure. More than a few were, and still are, intrigued by some of the changes the Saudi League would bring.
Rickie Fowler told reporters on Wednesday that he still believes the PGA Tour is the best place for him, but he also understands the idea that competition could be healthy for both sides.
“Ultimately, I think that if everything kind of goes the right way, I think everyone comes out in a better place,” Fowler said. “Like I said, I think competition is a good thing, and in business, whatever it may be, you’re trying to always, if you’re trying to be the best, you want to find ways that you can be better than your competitors. It goes through sport, business, tours, whatever it may be. I just hope that everything kind of continues to either head the right way or not the wrong way, and we can all end up in a better place in the future.”
Fowler mentioned he has spoken with Monahan about changes he would like to see, and he, and the other Tour players and caddies, want a response that shows the Tour is adjusting to their wants and needs.
“We were all very curious,” the caddie said. “Smaller fields, more money, more guaranteed money, 54-hole tournaments, shotgun starts. All of that is wonderful, but the Tour’s going to respond the only way they can. They have to come back hard. If not, the product is extremely diluted and they won’t let that happen.”
The Tour has made its position clear about players who decide to leave for any rival league. Monahan reiterated the Tour’s stance during meetings with players in California last week and Florida this week. The Associated Press reported that Monahan made it clear to the players that there is “zero complacency” when it comes to the Saudi league and that any player who signs up with the new league will lose their PGA Tour Membership.
“I told the players we’re moving on and anyone on the fence needs to make a decision,” Monahan told the AP on Wednesday in a telephone interview.
Every year, Tour players sign an agreement that states they are required to get written permission to play in an event opposite of a PGA Tour event that week. Any breach of that contract by playing in the new league would result in a suspension from the PGA Tour.
“I would think that [the Tour is] probably smart enough to not do a lifetime [suspension], it’ll probably be indefinite depending on how egregious somebody is,” the tour caddie said. “If they’re out recruiting players to come and play on that tour, I think that indefinite could possibly be a lifetime [ban]. I think if you were more, it’s a lot of money, I could provide for my family and a year into it, I made a mistake; it’ll probably be shorter.”
That threat of a suspension, or losing an opportunity to come back to the Tour, seems to have already prevented some from defecting.
“You got to have the stars to make it work. Now, if you do have lesser names out there making enormous amounts of money and purses, guys might say, ‘Well wait a minute, maybe I’ll go over there and play for those big purses,'” the tour agent said. “But, I just don’t see how, you have to have sponsors, you have to have a broadcast partner, you have to have a lot of things. And broadcasters are no dummies, they’re going to want to have some star power to justify the investment.”
Knowing the Saudi League faces an uphill battle given what has played out over the past few weeks, the Tour has a renewed opportunity to gain solidarity and trust from its players.
Perez said the Saudi League helped push the Tour to adapt already, including adding the Player Impact Program (PIP), which divvies up $50 million to the top-10 players who bring the most attention to the game based on a set of criteria. The Tour added bonuses for players who make at least 15 tour starts and increased the purse of the Players Championship, its flagship event, from $15 million to $20 million. The FedEx Cup bonus pool jumped from $60 million to $75 million, with the winner taking home $18 million.
That’s a start, but it only rewards the top players and the most popular golfers on social media. Perez, and others, believe the PIP money could be put to better use in purses or guaranteed money for everyone on Tour.
He suggested that Tour players start out with $250,000 of guaranteed money to help with expenses and missed cuts where no money is earned after a week’s worth of work and travel. A big part of his concern is for the players that aren’t in the top of the earnings list, who are spending more money than they’re earning on a yearly or even weekly basis.
“You’ve got guys missing cuts. I had a friend one year make $22,000 on the Tour. He lost, he was in the hole about 90 grand. Mind you, he didn’t play well and I get it, but how can he be out money?” Perez said. “He earned his card and he was out like 90 grand that year. That’s hard to do. Think about it, you’re playing at the top. The problem is the top guys are making so much money, they’re not really interested in whether or not they get another, you know, couple hundred grand or whatever.”
Others suggested to ESPN that the money go into the Korn Ferry Tour, a developmental tour, a minor league of sorts, for players before they earn their PGA Tour card. On the Korn Ferry Tour, the purses are significantly smaller where a player who makes the cut, but finishes in last place could stand to make roughly $4,000 for the week.
Each tournament incurs various expenses, including travel, lodging, food, tournament fees and caddie payouts, that a player on the Korn Ferry Tour could easily break even on a weekly basis after all expenses are factored in. The Tour did approve purse increases for 2022 and 2023, but there is still more that could be added to help offset costs for those outside the top money lists.
The Tour, sources said, has also had internal discussions with players about improvements and decisions going forward. It is discussing replacing its wraparound schedule with a calendar year lineup, which would include a team-based series of three events for the top 50 players in the previous year’s FedEx Cup standings, which would be played in Asia, Europe and the Middle East. Players outside the top 50 would compete in the existing fall events to determine their status for the next season. A source told ESPN that players’ reaction to the schedule changes was “lukewarm” during a PAC meeting in California last week.
Something has to be done, according to some players, because those who want to take a break from the year-round schedule and skip events in the fall, might start the next year way behind the leaders in the FedEx Cup standings.
The addition of the overseas team events also would perhaps alleviate some of the concerns from the tour’s best players, who believe they’re entitled to a larger piece of the pie than lesser accomplished players.
“What I think the average fan doesn’t know is how much a player spends to go to work,” a Tour agent said. “Nobody’s forcing them to do that, but they spend so much money or reinvest so much money in themselves and what they pay their team and what they spend on private airfare, renting homes and [paying] chefs and trainers and physical therapists and everything that goes into it. It’s a very lucrative sport, but it’s also a very expensive sport for them, unlike team-sport athletes who are flown around every place and supplied all those things.
“I think they’re just trying to make a little bit of an argument that maybe the very top guys who really drive the bus [should be] getting a little bit bigger piece of the pie, and I think the Tour’s listening.”
Players seem largely encouraged that the PGA Tour is willing to make changes.
“Maybe I’m fortunate that I’ve been more privy to the inner workings of the Tour and I’ve been more involved and got quite a good relationship with the leadership team on the PGA Tour, Jay [Monahan], Andy Pazder, Ross Berlin, all those sort of guys. Every time I walk out of a meeting or walk out of any sort of interaction with them, I’m always very confident that the Tour’s headed in the right direction,” McIlroy said. “I was really glad to see D.J. and Bryson put out those statements [last] week. We all want to play against the best players in the world and they’re certainly two of the best players in the world and it’s nice to know that they’re committed to playing here and committed to making this the best tour in the world.”
The Tour has even been transparent in disclosing last year’s annual budget for the first time to its players. They sent the budget to each player to show where the money was going, which is another reason some of the Tour players scratched their heads at Mickelson’s comments.
Not everyone is happy, and significant change still needs to happen, but the general sentiment from those dedicated to the Tour is that there is a willingness to adapt. Whether or not the Saudi League sees success or not, the PGA Tour is going to do what it takes to make sure it remains the premier golf league in the world.
What Mickelson said might have inadvertently assisted the Tour in its effort to stay at the top, but the Saudi League isn’t folding, either. The money poured into the endeavor by Norman, LIV and the Saudi group is still attractive to some.
But how quickly the big names pulled back from participating in the splinter league, and how firm advocates for the Tour were in their allegiance, revealed the staying power of what the PGA Tour has built.
Whether or not it will continue to fend off the efforts of the Saudi League in the future will depend on how the league adapts, how happy it keeps players and what the product looks like going forward.
“Already the Saudi League has had an impact on the PGA Tour and now I think it’s time for it to go away,” the caddie said. “The Tour is on top of it now and they realize that they probably needed the matchup and I think we’re going to see some fun, exciting new changes in the next 18 months on tour. I think we’ll start seeing a little bit of this concept probably bleed in.”