For the past 30 years, Phil Mickelson has thrilled fans around the world with his aggressive, attacking brand of golf.
It brought him six major titles, including last year’s US PGA Championship. It has been a superb career, yielding 57 professional victories that kept him a fixture in the world’s top 50 for 25 years.
But since becoming the oldest man to win a major, aged 51 when he clinched that 2021 PGA title, Mickelson has become a pariah in the game, joining the £1.6bn Saudi-funded LIV Golf Series, despite calling its financial backers “scary”.
In the latest BBC Radio 5 Live podcast building up the 150h Open Championship at St Andrews in July, the American’s legacy is scrutinised by respected golf writers Bob Harig and Alan Shipnuck. Both have written books about Mickelson; Shipnuck wrote the story that started the demise.
“It’s been a remarkable turnaround,” said Harig. “This is going to be part of his legacy. Phil Mickelson should have been taking a victory lap at Southern Hills [in May, defending his PGA title] and he wasn’t even there.
“I’m not convinced golf fans at large are going to hold this against him, but there is still a segment disappointed in what he’s done.
“And in February, there were a dozen guys with their toes over the edge of the cliff ready to jump [to LIV Golf] and as soon as Phil’s comments came out, they all scurried back and left him dangling over the edge of that cliff, to take all the abuse.
“And now they’re trickling out in dribs and drabs. I’m not defending him, but he took a lot of heat.”
Mickelson apologised for his “scary” comment, made in a conversation with Shipnuk, and only ended a four-month self-imposed exile from the game to play in the inaugural LIV Golf event in May.
“There has always been a public and a private Phil,” said Shipnuck, who has followed Mickelson’s career since he turned professional in 1992.
“While he can be incredibly generous and have all these random acts of kindness with fans, he likes to stir it up, likes to cause a little trouble.
“He’s always been frustrated in his dealings with the PGA Tour. He hasn’t been able to get his own way and he has grandiose vision of how the business of professional golf should be conducted.
“Finally the Saudis show up with their wheelbarrows full of money and that gave Phil the leverage. And while he would say he was doing it for the greater good, it was only really going to benefit the top players.
“If the Saudi tour became a success and started attracting television contracts and big corporate sponsorships, that’s money that’s going to get siphoned off from the PGA Tour. That’s going to shrink the purses and have an economic fallout for Phil’s colleagues, and that’s why they were so mad at him.
“It was not about the human rights violations in Saudi Arabia – he was threatening their livelihood.
“His words to me in dismissing the Saudi atrocities were shocking and so blunt. Most guys just stay on script and say we’re just trying to grow the game and you can get away with it.
“Phil said the quiet parts out loud. Ultimately in the world of golf it wasn’t the words that were so damaging, it was the actions and colluding with the Saudis against the PGA Tour that was the original sin.”
These actions have undeniably overshadowed his playing successes in the game.
“He was Tiger before Tiger,” said Harig of Mickelson’s rise in the early 1990s, with Tiger Woods coming through a few years later.
“He was unbelievable as a junior and amateur player, and if you had put their records side by side you might have said Phil would’ve had the better career.”
Mickelson won a PGA Tour event as an amateur in 1991. He was just the seventh, and so far last, to do so.
“Tiger blew everyone away, but Phil was incredibly good in his own right,” added Harig. “He did it in a style completely different from Tiger. He was like Arnold Palmer. Go for broke, take chances, don’t play conservatively. Sometimes it burned him, but it’s one of the reasons he was so revered. People appreciated that style.
“His career is the next best of his era. He should feel proud that 36 of his PGA Tour wins were in the Tiger era. Nobody else comes close to that. The next best is Dustin Johnson on 24. It is remarkable what he did.”
Shipnick says that without the Woods rivalry though, Mickelson may not have achieved so many highs in the game.
“Phil’s always been outspoken about thanking Tiger for what he brought to the game,” said Shipnuk. “He knows that Tiger put a heck of a lot of money in his pocket and he knows Tiger made him a much better player.
“Tiger did deny him trophies, but at the same time Phil was coasting on his talent. But in trying to keep up with such a dominant player, that forced him to really work on his game.
“There’s no way Phil would have won The Open at Muirfield playing his old style of sky-high super-spinny shots that work at the Phoenix Open. So by being forced to really confront his weaknesses he became a much better player.”
And it is that victory at Muirfield in 2013 that Shipnuk says Mickelson would regard as “one of his most meaningful wins”.
“We all know Muirfield is one of the greatest golf courses in the world. It was playing incredibly firm and fast, and it was windy in that last round. So for Phil, who was into his 40s when he won it, it had been a lifetime of chasing this different ideal and learning to play the game in a different way.”
Mickelson is scheduled to play in the final major of 2022, the 150th Open Championship at St Andrews from 14-17 July. He missed the cut at last week’s US Open and is likely to play just one event between now and then – the second LIV Golf Invitational in Portland, which starts on 29 June.
As things stand, Mickelson is ineligible to play in the Scottish Open, which immediately precedes The Open. He won the event in 2013 before going on to win at Muirfield.
But the PGA Tour, which co-sanctions the event with the European-based DP World Tour, has suspended lifetime member Mickelson and the other players who have defected to LIV Golf.
The R&A is allowing LIV players to play in the Open Championship, in line with the United States Golf Association’s stance at the US Open.
“I feel sorry for his legacy,” concluded Harig. “I don’t feel sorry for him – he made his choice. Maybe in the end he has the last laugh.”