In an excerpt from his controversial and highly anticipated biography on Phil Mickelson, author Alan Shipnuck details what was said in the blockbuster phone call that incurred the wrath of the Saudis and led to Mickelson’s exile from the sport.
This story is adapted from “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.
‘Phil admitted the SGL was nothing more than “sportswashing” by a brutally oppressive regime’
Mickelson refrained from saying anything of substance publicly about the SGL, but his involvement in the birth of the tour is much more extensive than has been previously known; he laid out all the details for me in an hour-long phone call in November 2021.
Mickelson said he had enlisted three other “top players” he declined to name and that they paid for attorneys to write the SGL’s operating agreement, codifying that the players would have control of all the details. He didn’t pretend to be excited about the prospect of making his professional home in Saudi Arabia, admitting the SGL was nothing more than “sportswashing” by a brutally oppressive regime.
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” he said. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. 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.
“They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as [Tour commissioner Jay Monahan] comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”
Indeed, Monahan quickly treated the SGL – and a less well-capitalized would-be start-up tour, the Premier Golf League – as an existential threat, and he warned that any player who signed on with the competition would be banned for life by the PGA Tour. (This is a legally dubious position but reflected Monahan’s siege mentality.)
The Tour quickly began pumping money to the players to try to blunt the Saudi incursion, jacking up the 2021 Players Championship purse to $15 million and introducing the new $40 million Player Impact Program (PIP), which was billed as a bonus pool for the players who had the biggest media reach and best engaged with fans through social media.
The Tour alluded to shadowy algorithms and unspecified metrics but refused to make public how the money was distributed, leaving no doubt it was merely a slush fund for Monahan to try to buy the loyalty of his superstars.
The day after Mickelson called me, word leaked about the Tour’s continued efforts to purchase its players’ happiness: in 2022, the PIP would be raised to $50 million; the FedEx Cup bonus pool increased from $60 million to $75 million; two spurious season-long bonus programs would hand out a total of $20 million more; and tournament purses increased $60 million to $427 million, with the Players Championship payout rising to $20 million. (Where have we heard that latter number before?)
Mickelson’s machinations with the Saudis had clearly worked, to the benefit of all, but he remained unsatisfied despite the influx of so much funny money. In his mind, two larger battles remained: the players being able to take possession of their media rights and a wholesale restructuring of how the players are governed.
The Tour’s draconian policy has long been that they own absolutely the media rights to its members. So Turner Sports has had to pay the Tour a $1 million licensing fee every time Phil teed it up in an iteration of The Match, though Mickelson himself has made upwards of $15 million from the franchise.
“I don’t want to say it’s infuriating, but it is definitely more than frustrating,” he says. A bigger deal is that the players don’t own the broadcast highlights of their own shots. Each of these moments could potentially be turned into an NFT and sold to fans or collectors. (Over the last year, more than $600 million of NFTs of NBA players have been sold, with individual NFTs fetching upwards of $200,000. Every player shares equally in the 5 percent transaction fee.)
“The Tour is sitting on multiple billions of dollars worth of NFTs,” says Mickelson, his voice rising like a revivalist preacher. “They are sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of digital content we could be using for our social media feeds. The players need to own all of that. We played those shots, we created those moments, we should be the ones to profit. The Tour doesn’t need that money. They are already sitting on an eight-hundred-million-dollar cash stockpile. How do you think they’re funding the PIP? Or investing two hundred million dollars in the European Tour? The Tour is supposed to be a non-profit that distributes money to charity. How the fuck is it legal for them to have that much cash on hand? The answer is, it’s not. But they always want more and more. They have to control everything. Their ego won’t allow them to make the concessions they need to.”
Is it about the money or the principle? With Mickelson, you can never be sure. Given the scale of his gambling losses – and we don’t know what we don’t know – it’s possible the Saudi seduction is born of necessity.
Phil: 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. Pre-order: RRP £20 (Hardback)
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