The rumors and fissures in the game of professional golf seem to have come to a head. Phil Mickelson, who is playing in this week's Saudi International and has been rumored as one of the preeminent targets for the yet-to-be-formed Super Golf League, had some interesting things to say about the PGA Tour this week while in Saudi Arabia.
Mickelson, who has played the PGA Tour for 30 years and made nearly $100 million on it, has been vocal about his displeasure with how the Tour has handled its revenue and more specifically its media rights for a while now. In a wide-ranging interview with Golf Digest this week – with a Super Golf League offer of $100 million for Lefty allegedly on the table (and that was before he won the PGA!) – Mickelson seemingly pushed all his chips in with these comments.
"It's not public knowledge, all that goes on," Mickelson told Digest. "But the players don't have access to their own media. If the tour wanted to end any threat [from Saudi or anywhere else], they could just hand back the media rights to the players. But they would rather throw $25 million here and $40 million there than give back the roughly $20 billion in digital assets they control. Or give up access to the $50-plus million they make every year on their own media channel.
"There are many issues, but that is one of the biggest," he added to Digest. "For me personally, it's not enough that they are sitting on hundreds of millions of digital moments. They also have access to my shots, access I do not have. They also charge companies to use shots I have hit. And when I did 'The Match'—there have been five of them—the tour forced me to pay them $1 million each time. For my own media rights. That type of greed is, to me, beyond obnoxious."
As was pointed out in the article, this is not dissimilar from how other sports leagues operate, although the PGA Tour is a bit different from other leagues in that its participants are independent contractors, which in and of itself is a fairly complicated thing. Mickelson has alluded all week to leverage and how he's glad that the rival leagues popping up over the last few years have helped improve what's happening on the PGA Tour.
"I think everybody is looking at it and seeing parts of it that can really help and benefit their situation, their life, their career, and then there's parts of it that they're probably concerned with," he said before the tournament started. "I'm appreciative of the fact that there is competition, and that leverage has allowed for a much better environment on the PGA Tour, meaning we would not have an incentive program like the PIP for the top players without this type of competition. We would not have the increase in the FedExCup money. We would not have the increase in the Players Championship to $20 million this year if it wasn't for this threat. …"
Mickelson apparently won the PIP last year, which is a competition between golfers that combines online mentions and popularity to "reward the players who have the biggest positive impact," according to the Tour. Mickelson took home $8 million for his efforts.
"I'm not sure how this is going to play out," Mickelson added to Digest. "My ultimate loyalty is to the game of golf and what it has given me. I am so appreciative of the life it has provided. I don't know what is going to happen. I don't know where things are headed. But I know I will be criticized. That's not my concern. All that would do is dumb down one of the most intricate issues in sports. It would be so naïve to not factor in all of the complexities. The media rights are but a small fraction of everything else. And it is the tour's obnoxious greed that has really opened the door for opportunities elsewhere."
To add fuel to the fire, Brooks Koepka – who fell to Mickelson at the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah – commented on the Digest article by saying, "Dk [sic] if I'd be using the word greedy if I'm Phil."
The big question now is whether Mickelson is tossing himself an alley-oop as he exits for the Super Golf League, which will ostensibly be a piece of the Asian Tour run by Greg Norman and LIV Golf Investments. Nobody knows for sure what that would look like, though we do know that LIV Golf Investments, which is backed by the PIF, which is essentially the financial arm of the Saudi government, is investing $300 million over the next 10 years into the Asian Tour. There are a lot of moving parts there, but it does seem like the pieces are in place for this tour to kick off if it can sign the players it is trying to sign.
It's not unreasonable to believe that Mickelson is simply leveraging every ounce of his current sway against the PGA Tour to try and secure more money and more opportunities for himself and future generations. But the animosity does seem real and so do the offers on the Saudi side. In addition to the $100 million Mickelson has apparently been offered, Bryson DeChambeau has been offered more than that. A lot more. As much as $135 million.
There have been some interesting rumors floating around that Mickelson and DeChambeau could make the leap together. Whether that happens remains to be seen, but this is certainly the biggest inflection point in golf this year (and maybe in the last few years). And all of it from a 51-year-old digital licensing expert who has one top 10 in the last 500 days but finds himself at the crossroads between who he's been, where he's going to be and what pro golf could look like for a very long time.