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Over the top by Meraj Shah: No Defence

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Phil Mickelson has withdrawn from the PGA Championship — the scene of his greatest career triumph

“What’s at stake?” The response to that—coming from a new playing partner who you’ve been paired with—can be an even more metaphoric question: “What are we playing for?” For many golfers, like your columnist, this is a binary question. I don’t like to play stakes because I want to compete against myself. Or at least that’s what I tell myself. Truth be told, I’m just too keen to tinker with my golf swing on the golf course and couldn’t be bothered with beating someone else as long as I’m hitting the ball well.

Then there’s the other—and it must be said, the more popular— camp. These are players who’ll never play a round without a bet in play. It could be a reasonable sum of money—although that’s a subjective thing—or a modest one. The idea, these players say, is to create pressure that’ll bring out the best in their game. You can’t be blah about your game if you know there’s money to be lost. While casual betting is all pervasive, it’s the norm amongst most professional golfers. It stands to reason: for them—players who rely on the game to make a living—recreating realistic playing conditions in practice means putting money at stake. Pros will often take this exercise to (what seems to amateurs like us) somewhat ridiculous lengths. Observe this the next time you see two pros practicing together on the range. Amongst the top pros in the world, Phil Mickelson’s penchant for high wagers has been well-known for a while now. Those six-figure-bets he placed with playing partners at ‘The Match,’ (that some of us dismissed as publicity stunts), made big news. Sporting men aren’t limited in their milieu, and Mickelson famously cashed in on a near-half-million bet he placed during the Super Bowl in 2001.

All of this came back to me as I read an excerpt from Alan Shipnuck’s upcoming biography of Mickelson. The biography claims that the reported losses the player incurred during a four-year stretch from 2010 to 2014 totalled more than $40 million. The writer proffers that given Mickelson’s annual income during this period was $10 million, that’s pretty much all the money he made. The excerpt also claims that Mickelson’s abrupt parting of ways with longtime caddie (and now golf television commentator) Jim ‘Bones’ MacKay, was a result of, among other factors, overdue back pay to Mackay.
All of this suggests an implausible situation: is it possible that Phil Mickelson, one of the most successful golfers in history, is in financial trouble? It might sound bizarre, but, as a Mickelson fan, this explanation is almost a reassuring one. It’s a relief to know there might be an entirely reasonable explanation for Mickelson’s somewhat inexplicable, self-destructive, trajectory over the past few months. Shipnuck has emerged as Phil Mickelson’s bete noire by revealing details that the player insists were uttered off-the-record. The slide began earlier this year when an excerpt from the book revealed Mickelson’s disparaging comments about the PGA Tour and, somewhat puzzlingly, the new Saudi league’s financiers—the Saudi Arabian government. At the time it was widely believed that Mickelson would be amongst the biggest names to leave the PGA Tour to join the rival league. After the revelations, and the massive blowback that ensued, Mickelson went underground—announcing an unspecified sabbatical from the professional game. Now that the dust has settled somewhat, fans were hoping to see Mickelson back to defend his PGA Championship title this month.

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It was the man’s crowning glory in 2021. Rolling the rock like a demon, while rocking shades that would sit right on a pop star, Phil Mickelson’s triumph at last year’s PGA Championship was a big ‘take that,’ to people who’d written him off. And with so much attitude too—where did Mickelson find all that swag, we thought. And who would have ever thought the man could pull off a style statement? Or win the PGA Championship at 50 years of age. But he did, and delivered a win for the ages.

I was rooting for him all right. And even more so when he got the wrong end of the stick in the media with commentators calling him ‘old,’ or worse, the ‘oldest ever,’ to win a Major that is.It almost felt like Mickelson was being congratulated for winning the lottery, not a Major golf championship. What a windfall! You won a Major at 50!

That was last year. Mickelson continued to be out there in 2022, not paying attention to the ageist jokes, getting his teeth knocked out by younger players, struggling with this game, but refusing to buy a yacht and sail to the Bahamas. Bravo we all chimed. Now, with this series of unfortunate events there’s an alternative picture emerging. It’s not beyond the realm of possibility that Mickelson needs to play just to get his financial affairs in order. If there is a modicum of truth in that, then Lefty’s fans will hope that he can get his act together. In so many ways Mickelson has been such a role model. He doesn’t throw clubs, or mouth profanities on air, and, given the number of times he’s come up short, he’s mostly been quite gracious in defeat.

Mickelson is the man with the wry grin who used to walk around burdened by expectations that had gone from promise of success to the sadistic certainty of imminent failure. You only have to glance at the odds on punters’ websites during the Majors to understand, truly, the unshakeable faith that bookies have had in Phil’s uncanny ability not to win, and just how much money they’re willing to stake on that. It’s time for the man himself to pick up the pieces and bet big on himself. Phil the hustler—he needs to make a comeback.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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