When it comes to the unrepentant folklore of Phil Mickelson, vulgarity has always been a central character. Take the night after ‘The Match’ – the farcical Las Vegas pay-per-view contest between himself and Tiger Woods in 2018 – when country singer Jake Owen approached Mickelson and echoed the thoughts of the wider world by asking for a refund. Mickelson promptly reached into his pocket and produced a fistful of hundred dollar bills. “I won 90,000 of these yesterday,” he grinned. “Take a hundred and go f*** yourself.”
If that gives any insight into Mickelson’s persona, it’s never one he’s tried to conceal. He’s magnificently marmite, claims to have an IQ of over 200 “but doesn’t like to make a big deal out of it”, and has never been shy to flaunt what others might prefer to see as flaws. A few months later, he and Owen were laughing away together at a pro-am because, well, that’s just Mickelson, isn’t it?
From photocopying a winning “Benji” to stick on Woods’ locker or duping an entire dining room into wagering against a future four-weight boxing world champion, the anecdotes are endless, hyperbolic, and often downright bizarre. Each tale adding a protective layer to the mythology.
But if there’s one certainty to any Mickelson story, it’s that it religiously revolves around money. A wager that he’s expected to win and a point of morality which he could be more inclined to lose. After accepting a seven-figure appearance fee to play in Saudi Arabia last year, his goofiness took an unavoidably cynical turn. Then there was his – and Woods’ – refusal to rule out joining a Saudi-funded breakaway league while golf’s current one and two Rory McIlroy and Brooks Koepka both voiced their discomfort over “where the money was coming from”.
Yet, when Mickelson revealed on Monday that he’s currently “working on” staging a second edition of ‘The Match’, potentially during the coronavirus pandemic, the sense of naked opportunism brought his salesman’s charm to a soulless nadir. Played no doubt at a country club so exclusive it already qualifies as in quarantine, it would exploit the void left by sport’s absence, the world’s yearning for any form of distraction, and be lucrative beyond measure.
The details are still scabby, the logistics next to implausible, but the prospect hasn’t since been ruled out. Mickelson’s agent admitted there were still many “moving parts” which would need to be put in order – and a sizeable charitable aspect surely incorporated. But even then, this Frankenstein 2.0 of exhibitions – the first of which, remember, resulted in its own commentary team describing it as “crappy” – would still feel so blindingly incongruous next to the tragedy currently underwriting each day. Even for Mickelson, the prospect of kneeling in front of another case of $9m must surely feel like a stoop too low, and one that would always leave his reputation soiled.
Perhaps it was misguided, or facetious, or simply based in greed. After all, where one person sees ruins, another envisions what they will build. One sees catastrophe, another senses opportunity. History suggests Mickelson has never been one to knowingly end up on the wrong side of that bet.
It’s a wider interrogation of Big Sport’s moral standpoint that’s brought about some uncomfortable truths over these past few weeks. At a time where it’s meaningless yet still so sorely missed, is it possible to begin planning for the future without offending the present? What responsibility do athletes, teams and leagues have, if any, to help the society which fuels them?
It’s an argument that’s been pinned at the Premier League as it’s drawn and scrapped blueprints to complete the season. It’s no secret that failure to forward plan in this crisis could bring even sport’s biggest structures to the brink of collapse. But, for many, to prioritise economics while people’s lives are being damaged irreparably is something that will always be impossible to reconcile with.
To be clear, Mickelson does not come under that endangered category. After 44 PGA Tour wins and upwards of $50m in earnings in 2019 alone, according to Forbes, it’s safe to assume the 49-year-old will emerge from golf’s indefinite suspension financially unscathed.
If the moral of every Mickelson yarn is that he ultimately comes out the winner, this time the money will have to be lost. Otherwise, it will leave a stain no amount of hilarious spin can rewrite.
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