The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion How Phil Mickelson got clocked by his own backswing

Phil Mickelson greets spectators at the Northern Trust golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course in Jersey City, N.J., on Aug. 19, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

John Feinstein is a Post contributor. His most recent book is “Raise a Fist, Take a Knee: Race and the Illusion of Progress in Modern Sports.”

The Saudi Arabian soap opera involving some of golf’s biggest stars — notably Hall of Famer Phil Mickelson — appears to be a complicated tale.

In fact, it’s very simple: It’s about money — and how reaching for more can damage even the best reputations.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman believes that throwing millions of dollars at professional golfers can help him whitewash his reputation as the man who U.S. intelligence officials believe ordered the murder of Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

Players such as Mickelson have been ready to accept Mohammed’s cash, guaranteed to players up front, instead of sticking with the PGA Tour, where — for the most part — you are paid what you earn each week.

And the PGA Tour wants to retain its monopoly on the world’s best players — and its massive television contracts, which skyrocketed this year.

The story begins a generation ago, in 1994, when Greg Norman, then the world’s No. 1 player, came up with the idea for an alternate tour, one that would pay the circuit’s top players far more money than the PGA Tour was paying them at the time.

That idea died when PGA Tour added four tournaments to its schedule that would feature — surprise — fewer players and more prize money. Most top players loved that idea: It meant more money without fear of the sanctions threatened by the PGA Tour if they signed up with Norman’s group instead.

Norman’s idea died, but his anger at the PGA Tour did not. So when Mohammed pitched Norman on a Saudi-paid tour last year, Norman jumped at the idea. The key to making it work was to get other top players to join up, too.

The biggest name to come on board early was Mickelson — one of the most popular players in the sport’s history. There was, however, a problem: Mickelson is 51 and, although he miraculously won the PGA Championship last May (becoming the oldest major champion in history), he is approaching the end of his run. The biggest names in golf nowadays — Americans Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Jordan Spieth, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka, along with Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy — are all much younger. And none rushed to follow Mickelson. (Tiger Woods is still hugely popular, but he’s 46, and no one knows whether he will play again after his disastrous car accident a year ago.)

Mickelson made it clear how much he liked the idea of the Saudi tour in an interview earlier this month, when he accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed” and claimed the tour was denying players the rights to their digital images. At that moment, it was clear that Mickelson had thrown in with Norman and his Saudi backers. (The Post reported this month that the Trump Organization, which owns a number of golf resorts, is also in talks with the Saudi golf league.)

The PGA Tour, meanwhile, was not taking this lying down. Last spring, it created a $40 million fund to be handed out to the 10 “most impactful” players. Exactly how a player’s “impact” was calculated was a secret. (No outfit in sports is more secretive than the PGA Tour.) But the $8 million first prize in 2021 went to — you guessed it — Mickelson. Woods, who last played in an official event in November 2020, finished second. Clearly, the tour was willing to pay its stars millions just for being stars.

Norman’s new tour began to fall apart when McIlroy made it clear in mid-February that he had no interest in joining. Other top players fell into line. Then came the coup de grace, when author Alan Shipnuck published a quote from a November interview he did with Mickelson. “[The Saudis] are scary mother------- to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed 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.”

Translation: Forget murder, human rights, gay rights. There’s a hell of a lot of money on offer.

You know what happened next. Mickelson has been buried by social media for his remarks. On Feb. 22, Mickelson’s longtime corporate sponsor, KPMG, severed ties with him. Mickelson apologized for his remarks, vowed to take some “time away” from golf, and continues to support the new tour. McIlroy, normally a gentle soul, called Mickelson’s November comments “naive, selfish, egotistical and ignorant.”

The Saudi venture looks uncertain for now — though, in sports, almost anything and everything can rise from the dead. What is certain? Million-dollar crusades to repair one reputation through sportswashing can badly damage the reputations of those who think it will cost them nothing to participate.