Having withdrawn from the US PGA Championship, the reigning champion seems painfully aware of his pariah status
In his newly published and excellent book Tiger and Phil: Golf’s Most Fascinating Rivalry, Bob Harig describes the scene in the scoring tent at the conclusion of the 2002 US PGA Championship. That Rich Beem makes no worse than a bogey at the 72nd hole ensures a surprise one-stoke victory over Tiger Woods. Fred Funk looks on, bemused, as Woods bellows: “Yes.” Prompted to clarify his obscure outburst, Woods says: “That’s Rich Beem one, Phil Mickelson zero.”
Lefty remained without a major title. The scale of antipathy between Mickelson and Woods was illustrated by the latter’s strange display of emotion.
The intervening years have seen relations soften between the most high-profile player and the individual who for so long was in his shadow. Yet Woods and Mickelson now sit on the opposite sides of the ongoing battle for hearts and minds. Woods, who has created much of his legacy via the PGA Tour, sits in firm endorsement of the existing ecosystem. Mickelson remains far too embroiled in all matters Saudi Arabia. Tiger v Phil, just like old times, but on a basis nobody could have anticipated.
Friday evening’s announcement that Mickelson will not defend the US PGA Championship at Southern Hills from Thursday came as a surprise to many. He had crept back into the consciousness of the public in recent weeks.
Albeit not at all of their own doing, it is a blow to the PGA of America. Its reigning champion, a player who won in such dramatic style just weeks short of his 51st birthday, has suffered such a fall from grace that even turning up at Southern Hills is apparently too much to bear.
Twelve months on from being mobbed by adoring galleries, from proving there is sporting life after 50, Mickelson is a pariah. He has not played since infamous remarks relating to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses and attempts to leverage the kingdom’s public investment fund against the PGA Tour entered the public domain.
Where, at the Masters, Woods’s comeback from a serious car crash understandably dominated the narrative until Scottie Scheffler breezed to victory, the second men’s major of 2022 gives cause to ponder what on earth Mickelson does next.
In Tulsa, the reaction of Woods towards his old adversary will be especially interesting. The softer, more human Woods of this day and age may well call for clemency. He has, though, always retained a capacity to seriously wound with even a single sentence.
The Saudis so desperately need golfers of status for their disruption plan that they kept Mickelson on board, despite the admission he knows all about the kingdom’s issues. Mickelson has neither the gumption nor the legal mechanism to remove himself entirely from Greg Norman’s equation. Theirs is a marriage of convenience that looks laughably flimsy.
Mickelson has, however, entered Norman’s LIV Golf Series event in Hertfordshire in June. Should the six-time major champion turn up at the Centurion Club it would provide an element of box office but also an admission Mickelson has given up being a competitive relevance.
The main tours, so opposed to the Saudi scheme, may be happy for Norman to keep talking given the damage incurred by his attempt to brush aside the killing of Jamal Khashoggi and execution of 81 men in Saudi Arabia. Perhaps that recent controversy added to Mickelson’s sense that this US PGA was best avoided.
By the time Woods completed his fourth round at Augusta National last month, the scale of physical strain was perfectly clear. Woods has won at Southern Hills – the US PGA of 2007 – and warm temperatures will assist him, but he surely remains far too lightly raced to compete over 72 holes. Building towards the Open at St Andrews in July is a more legitimate goal.
It will be interesting to see whether Scheffler can continue his extraordinary run by way of winning back-to-back majors. Jordan Spieth needs the US PGA to complete a career grand slam and raved about the venue having visited it in the company of Justin Thomas.
“The course was fantastic, I loved it,” he said. “The green complexes are perfectly fitting to the holes. It’s going to be a really firm and fast PGA. It’s going to be one of the higher scoring PGAs that we have seen.
“Now, I did play it in 35mph hour winds with Justin, so I saw the teeth of it and that could change. But it was a great test. I really enjoyed playing it.”
The reigning champion will look on from afar while wondering, one assumes, what might have been. The pursuit of petroleum pounds comes at a heavy cost.