A lot happened in golf over the last seven days, but the flurry of headlines produced little clarity.
On Tuesday, the PGA of America released the list of players who’d registered for the PGA Championship, which will take place May 19-22, and both Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the defending champion, were signed up. Woods even made a Thursday scouting trip to the host venue, Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., although he hasn’t said for sure if he’ll tee it up and probably won’t until days before the event.
Mickelson, on the other hand, emerged for the first time since saying “[I] desperately need some time away,” after writer Alan Shipnuck released quotes from a forthcoming book in which Mickelson called the Saudis, who are backing Greg Norman’s LIV Golf series, “scary motherf—ers.” But on Wednesday, Mickelson’s agent, Steve Loy of Sportfive, released a statement saying his client had registered for the PGA and June’s U.S. Open, while also requesting a waiver to play in the first LIV event, which takes place near London on June 9, a week before the Open. “Phil currently has no concrete plans on when and where he will play,” the statement read in part. “Any actions taken are in no way a reflection of a final decision made, but rather to keep all options open.”
If Mickelson plays LIV London, he’ll have good company. LIV won’t discuss individual names until officially releasing the full field on May 27, but Norman claimed in an ESPN interview that roughly 15 Top 100 players are on board. Adam Scott, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Sergio Garcia and Louis Oosthuizen are said to have at least shown interest. What do those players have in common? With the exception of Oosthuizen (39), they’re all over 40 and on the back end of their careers. “In fairness, they can all still play a bit, but their involvement makes the whole thing look more like a pension-boosting bonanza than an elite competition,” The Times’ Alasdair Reid wrote.
That’s true of Mickelson, too. At 51 (52 in June), he’s already started playing some Champions tour events, and he’s been less competitive on the main tour. Other his surprise win at the PGA Championship, during the 2020-21 season he had nine missed cuts and no top 15 finishes. Enter The Telegraph, which reported on Tuesday that Mickelson has signed a $30 million deal with LIV to play LIV’s entire eight-event schedule. That nugget remains unconfirmed, but if true, it’s a good deal for Mickelson, who last year earned a meager $2.7 million on the PGA Tour and another $1.5 on the Champions tour.
A large chunk of guaranteed money to play in 54-hole team events limited to 48 players with no cut and payouts to every player in the field sounds like a pretty good way to ride out a career twilight, but it does come at a price. For starters, Lefty and the three Euros will give up a chance to serve as Ryder Cup captains, usually considered a late-career honor for top competitors. More important, as of now, they’d lose access to all PGA Tour related events. The bigger, still unknown questions is what the majors will do. Each of the four is run by other entities, but all are PGA Tour co-sanctioned events. Thus far they’ve been noncommital while offering quotes that vaguely suggest support for the Tour, but their ultimate decision on whether or not to allow LIV players could prove decisive.
So what will happen? There doesn’t seem to be anything stopping Mickelson from defending his title at the PGA. And the Tour often grants waivers for overseas events—it allowed 30 players to compete in February’s Saudi International—so there’s a reasonable chance Mickelson will get to play LIV’s London event. If he does so on a waiver, then the USGA shouldn’t have a problem allowing him to enter the U.S. Open, the only major he’s never won, although he’s finished a heartbreaking second six times.
Except that before the Open tees off, Mickelson would have to apply for another waiver if he plans to play in the second LIV Invitational in Portland, Ore., on July 1. That will surely be denied.
It runs afoul of the Tour’s regulation against playing in competing events in North America on the same week a Tour event is taking place, and commissioner Jay Monahan made clear earlier in the year he considers a violation grounds for a ban. At that point, Mickelson could wave goodbye to the PGA Tour, the Champions tour, the DP World tour (Europe) and ride off to earn a LIVing with Norman and friends.
Or he could sue.
He’ll certainly have the money for a lawyer or two, and Norman indicated that his “extremely talented legal team in antitrust and anticompetitive laws” is primed and in the right, although the case may not be so clear cut.
The irony is that many of the benefits Mickelson was seeking via “leverage” from the LIV deal have either been delivered or are in the works. He wanted more money for the top players—the ones who “move the needle”—so last year the Tour created the Player Impact Program, a $40 million pool that went to the 10 players who scored the highest on a metric that measured public engagement. Phil finished second, to Woods, collecting $6 million in the process. The Tour also pumped up the payout to the FedEx Cup winner from $10 million to $15, and for 2022 the total purse for all Tour events went from $367 million to $427 million. Beyond that, the Tour added another $105 million in various bonus pools.
Mickelson also complained about IP rights, noting that he had to pay to use his own highlights and that he—and other players—were missing out on NFT windfalls because the Tour held the rights to all its events. On Friday, Golf.com reported (and Sportico confirmed) that the Tour has made NFT deals with Autograph and Sorare. Players who choose to participate will get a payment up front and royalties paid on a sliding scale, with players who generate more sales getting a higher percentage.
Whether all of that will satisfy Mickelson, who has earned an estimated $1 billion on golf in his career, is unknown, but the next two months will reveal a lot about his intentions and the future of the sport.