EXCLUSIVE: ‘Phil never opens his mouth without an agenda. He’s exceptionally calculating’

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Alan Shipnuck spent two years writing a new biography about Phil Mickelson and discovered the truth about the Saudis, his gambling addiction and why he split with Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay. Now he’s shared even more details about the bombshell interview that sent Lefty into hiding…

Phil Mickelson has always been one of the most mercurial and charismatic characters in the history of the game. Fans tend to love him no matter what, but there’s another side that people don’t see (or prefer not to) of a self-obsessed, Jekyll and Hyde character with a compulsive need for attention, gambling and competition.

Phil Mickelson has reportedly accepted a $200 million signing-on bonus to play the LIV Golf Series

No one really knew the full story until Alan Shipnuck started trying to piece together the truth about a flawed genius whose golf game is perhaps the least interesting thing about him.

All is revealed in his highly anticipated and controversial new book, Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar, which has already risked the wrath of the Saudis and led to Phil’s three-month exile from the sport earlier this year.

Following the conclusion of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational at Centurion Club, we spoke to Shipnuck to unpick some of the most surprising revelations from over 200 interviews and finally find out who the real Phil Mickelson really is.

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Was Phil Mickelson always your number one pick to write a biography on?

I had a contract with Simon & Schuster going back to 2012 to do an unspecified golf book. Every time we talked about it, I kind of floated Phil’s name but my editor wasn’t that excited about it actually. I always knew it would make a lively book, but it was only when we went into lockdown that I started working on it in earnest. It turned out to be great timing because everyone was at home and bored, so I called up every golfer, caddie, agent, tour wife and swing coach I had on my phone and they were all happy to talk. Pretty quickly I acquired the contours of the book.

Did you ever approach Phil about actually doing an authorised biography? 

Yeah, I went to see him three times face-to-face and asked him if he would sit for interviews, going back to the PGA Championship at Harding Park in 2020, then Torrey Pines in 2021 and Pebble Beach a month later. He ultimately said no, which was fine. I’d had so much access to Phil and the people around him through the years I didn’t really need him.

The book was due December 1 and right around Thanksgiving he finally called me up. And that’s when we had that momentous phone call. I think in the final analysis, he just couldn’t help himself. Like he has said many times, he needs to be the smartest guy in the room. And it pained him for me not to know all these political battles he’d been winning and how he had masterfully played the Saudis against the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson won the PGA Championship in 2021

Were you surprised by how honest he was?

Yes, because everyone goes over to Saudi Arabia and takes their money. But there’s a script and if you stay on script, you’re only there to grow the game and you’re a golfer, not a politician. The rest of us roll our eyes because we know it’s all BS and all about the money, but Phil actually said the quiet parts out loud and he was brutally honest about it. I was impressed by his candour.

I knew in that moment that what he was saying was going to spark some controversy. But Phil has spent his whole career talking his way out of controversy. I never imagined it would send him into exile. But I guess like Phil, I kind of underestimated the emotion around Saudi Arabia, especially for Americans. It wasn’t so much his words, it was his actions. He was actively colluding to subvert the interests of the PGA Tour. That’s really why the players closed ranks and were so harsh in their criticism.

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What kind of feedback have you had from players, agents and PGA Tour staff?

Universally, the reaction I got was thank you for showing the world who Phil really is and thank you for putting all the cards on the table with the Saudi stuff. There’s always been a gulf between the public and private Phil. People in the game have always known the real Phil, but the fans haven’t so I think there was some gratification for everyone getting to see the real Phil.

Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson have been suspended by the PGA Tour

Why do you think Phil made that call in the first place?

I think he realised the Saudi stuff was important and could potentially impact his legacy. And so he wanted me to have more understanding of what was really going on. But Phil is an adrenaline junkie. Maybe there was some thrill in sharing this kind of secret information with a person he shouldn’t have shared it with. I can’t be certain of his motives, but he was quite eager to tell me everything which is an interesting wrinkle in all of it.

And then he claimed some of the comments were made to you off the record…

Well, that was just a bad faith attempt to talk his way out of another jam. And luckily, I think most people could see how transparent I was. As I said, I went to him three times and asked him to do interviews for the book. And then he finally came to me when he was ready to talk. Clearly, in that scenario, anything he tells me was going directly into the pages of the book unless we agreed otherwise.

He never asked to go off the record and if he had, I would have pushed back really hard because this was my one chance to get him for the book. There’s this subtlety that people have overlooked. He told me that three other players had been part of this effort to help write the operating agreement with the Saudis. I asked him who they were, and he wouldn’t tell me, but if we were truly off the record, he could have just said because I can’t use it. I’ll go to my grave knowing that the whole conversation was on the record. For Phil to have said otherwise was disappointing.

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What did you make of the apology he issued? 

I wouldn’t even call it an apology. He made himself both the hero and the martyr in his statement. It felt like the only people he was really apologising to were the Saudis. That was just a transparent attempt at damage control. There wasn’t much sincerity there or self-reflection. It was mostly just spin.

Is Phil as calculating as he seems?

Oh, yeah, definitely. Phil never opens his mouth without an agenda. He’s exceptionally calculating, and he’s always been that way. You saw at Gleneagles when he threw Tom Watson under the bus in the Ryder Cup press conference. That was a calculated decision to try and create pressure on the American side to change how they do things. And, in fairness to Phil, it worked. Everything he pushed for has come true, so you’ve got to give him credit.

But then he smacked a moving ball at Shinnecock Hills in the 2018 US Open. That was an act of petulance, but it was also Phil protesting against the USGA’s set-up. He’s fought a lot of battles through the years and most of them he hasn’t won. But the Saudis finally gave him the leverage to get a lot of things done with the Tour.

Tom Watson and Phil Mickelson fell out at the 2014 Ryder Cup

Have you had any backlash from the book, possibly from the Saudis?

They don’t have a great record for respecting dissenting journalists, but no, I haven’t. By and large, people have been extremely supportive, including people in the game. I think truth is an increasingly precious commodity. And it’s an honest book and I tried to be very fair and balanced with Phil.

He’s done a lot of admirable things in his life and they’re all on the pages of the book – the philanthropy that he’s done, the random acts of kindness with fans, his mentorship of young players. I was very happy to sing his praises and celebrate his virtues. But he’s also been involved in a lot of controversy and a lot of messiness. And that’s in the book too. 

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How would you describe the finished product?

I think it’s a really fun, lively read about a very unique character in all of sports. For more than 30 years, Phil has been one of the best golfers in the world. He’s also a larger-than-life personality. He’s this incredible showman and a great trash talker. He has an opinion about everything. He’s just a livewire. There’s a lot of juicy bits and it’s just a really comprehensive look at a very complicated person.

What was the most surprising revelation to come out of your 200+ interviews about Mickelson?

I think it was how things ended with his career-long caddie, Jim Mackay, also known as Bones. They always seem like brothers. After 25 years, things ended and they put out these cheerful, matching press releases, but no one could explain satisfactorily why. I observed in the aftermath of them parting ways that there was some tension there.

One time I saw them walk past each other and they didn’t even acknowledge each other’s existence. Kind of cracking the code on that whole mystery was one of the best parts of the book.

Phil Mickelson and Jim 'Bones' Mackay split in 2020

One thing that really stood out reading the book was how he ended up losing $40 million between 2010 and 2014. When you discovered the extent of his gambling addiction, did that surprise you?

Yeah, but Phil thinks he’s smarter than the house and that’s a bad combination. An incredible amount of money has flowed in and out of Phil’s wallet and his bank accounts. For him to finally acknowledge that and use the word addiction was a big deal because it’s always been known in the game.

I was able to give a snapshot, but for him to come out and actually say it I think that’s meaningful. It shows that he has done some growing, which was kind of the whole point of his time away.

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How would you describe your own relationship with Phil Mickelson? At the 2013 Open, you shared a glass of champagne together

I would say it’s been complex. We’ve had our ups and downs. Phil is a master manipulator of the media and he’s charmed reporters, bullied them, and cajoled them. I’ve been on the receiving end of all of that. Across 30 years, I’ve seen all the different sides of Phil. But, you know, he’s a fun guy to be around.

There’s a quote in the book from Charles Barkley, which I think is really insightful. He says something to the effect that being around Tiger everyone’s uptight and they feel like they’re under siege. With Phil it’s fun, you’re going to laugh. There’s something to that. I’ve always loved writing about Phil and I enjoy being in his presence because his mind and mouth are always going, so it’s never boring.

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Have you spoken to him since the book was published?

I tried to at the LIV event. After the first round, I was looking forward to asking him a couple of questions in the press conference, but then I got muscled out of there by some security goons. It’s not really clear if they were acting on Phil’s direction or Greg Norman’s, although Norman was standing right there. He certainly could have stopped it but chose not to.

Alan Shipnuck was prevented from asking Phil Mickelson questions at the LIV Golf Series

Has your opinion of Phil changed since writing the book?

Not necessarily. I always knew he was a complex person and that he is multifaceted. I guess I didn’t realise how deep that runs, but I certainly do now. It’s disappointing that he impugned my professionalism by saying our interview was off the record. That’s affected my feelings towards him on some level, but I also understand that he’s talked his way out of so many controversies that he thought he could do it again. I don’t really take it personally.

Have you sent him a copy of the book?

I sent it to him weeks ahead of publication just to give him a chance to read it. It felt like the fair and right thing to do. As he was trying to decide when to come back to public life, I didn’t know if it was weighing on him at all. I wanted him to see that I did treat him very fairly. I don’t know if he read it, but I certainly got it to him.

Phil Mickelson was critical about the Saudi regime

Finally, what’s your favourite story from the whole book?

Gosh, there are so many funny ones. It might be the one in chapter one. It was Nick Faldo’s 60th birthday party and his girlfriend at the time threw this big party. It was kind of a glamorous crowd and then Phil rolls up. Nick’s just sitting at a table basking in all the attention and then Phil completely takes over the room, won’t stop talking and is saying all these outrageous things. Nick Faldo’s just sinking deeper and deeper into his chair and it’s such a funny image. It was told to me by Johnny Miller, who’s a great storyteller. That one makes me laugh every time because it’s so Phil!

Phil Mickelson book by Alan Shipnuck

The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorised!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colourful Superstar

A frank and revealing biography of legendary golf champion Phil Mickelson – who has led a big, controversial life – as reported by longtime Sports Illustrated writer and bestselling author Alan Shipnuck. On sale June 23, £20. Pre-order here.

Follow Alan on Twitter and see more of his work at The Firepit Collective.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Today's Golfer features editor Michael Catling.

Michael Catling is the Features Editor of Today’s Golfer.

He has been a journalist for more than 10 years and was shortlisted for Bauer Media Journalist of the Year in 2019.

Michael joined Bauer Media in 2016 and has exclusively interviewed dozens of Major champions, including Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.

A former member of Ufford Park and Burghley Park, Michael has been playing golf since he was 11 and currently plays off a handicap of 10.

Michael uses a Ping G driverPing G 3-woodPing G Crossover 3-ironPing G Series irons (4-PW), Ping Glide wedges (52º, 56º, 60º), TaylorMade MySpider Tour Putter, and Srixon AD333 golf ball.

You can contact Michael here.

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