A decade ago, Phil Mickelson made ripples among his brethren for suggesting that the PGA Tour was no place for a democracy to take root.
Instead, he espoused the benevolent dictator model, wherein one man is entrusted with the autonomy and authority to mete out punishment, manipulate policy and enforce the rules.
Or, in fact, do nothing at all.
"I don't think players should be involved in the tour," Mickelson told the San Francisco Chronicle's Ron Kroichick in 2006. "I think the commissioner should run the tour.”
Now we know why.
Two full seasons after an investigation into Mickelson's dealings with a known gambler—one of the more embarrassing episodes in years—initially came to the attention of PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, he’s seemingly taken the federal paperwork from the cases and tossed them in a deskside paper shredder.
“I'm just glad it's over,” Mickelson said last week before playing at the Memorial Tournament in Ohio. “It feels good that it's over and it's passed, and it's in the past. Ready to move on.”
Well, sort of. Five days after that statement, another spiked shoe dropped.
First a little background. After two years of inquiry, Mickelson last month was named in a federal civil suit involving the nation’s most-notorious sports gambler, high-stakes Las Vegas legend Billy Walters. The case involved an alphabet soup of investigatory agencies, including the FBI and SEC, yet the acronym known as the PGA did what it does best.
It kept as quiet as a greenside gallery at Augusta National, continuing its long history under Finchem of burying its collective head in the sand as it relates to bad news, player discipline or public discussions of black-eye episodes. The tour’s mealy-mouthed reaction was condemned by some as another in a series of predictably blind P.R. moves.
FBI agents first showed up at the 2014 Memorial Tournament to question Mickelson about the Walters case, the Wall Street Journal reported. According to the feds, Mickelson admitted to using a tip from Walters to buy stock that increased in value 40 percent overnight, and used the proceeds to repay debts owed to Walters from unspecified gambling losses.
That’s the most alarming part of the issue. The tour player handbook forbids players from associating with or having "dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf."
How famous is Walters? Put it this way: “60 Minutes” has profiled him.
Amazingly, though two years had passed since the FBI first put the arm on Mickelson, the tour has continued with relative silence. Tour spokesman Ty Votaw two weeks ago told Doug Ferguson of the Associated Press: “[Interacting with gamblers] is something we're in the process of looking at and determining.”
This after Mickelson admitted to authorities that he had pocketed close to $1 million in profits on the stock buy, which he paid back, with interest. Mickelson has not been charged, because the SEC cannot conclusively prove that the stock tip he received from Walters was relayed via inside information the gambler received from a CEO who also owed him money.
To recap: Mickelson used tainted information to make a stock purchase that raised the ire of the feds, made a small fortune, and was forced to repay the proceedings. He owed money to a professional gambler, an act which has been the foundation of more than a few points-shaving scandals over the years.
Then, on Monday in Los Angeles, ESPN's Mike Fish reported that Gregory Silveira, another man with gambling ties, was sentenced to a year in prison for laundering $2.7 million of Mickelson’s money, which was used to used to repay the 42-time PGA Tour winner’s undisclosed gambling debts.
It’s all disturbing. How much did Lefty lose, and under what circumstances? How could a player with more than $50 million in annual income become beholden to a sports gambler? Did he wager on tournaments, which is also explicitly forbidden under tour rules? How can the tour let it all slide, with not so much as a public rebuke?
Great questions, unless you’re Finchem. Then they’re just annoying.
Incredibly, both Finchem and Mickelson told reporters last week at the Memorial Tournament that they had not spoken to one another about the SEC suit or any potential in-house punishment. The prospect of future sanctions from the tour, which does not disclose its disciplinary actions against players due to Finchem’s unilateral authority, seems unlikely.
“I'm not really able to talk about—I don't know,” Mickelson said, vaguely, about his future status on tour. “I don't know anything to even comment on that.”
Ah, the old matador ole.
Understand that Mickelson, who has won five major championships and is the most-successful active player on the PGA Tour now that Tiger Woods’ wagon has been parked, isn’t just another questionably dressed pro in a white belt. He’s among the supreme sports beings on the planet, as gauged by a variety of yardsticks.
Last week, ESPN ranked Mickelson at 13th in its annual World Fame 100. The combined number of MLB, NFL and NHL players ranked ahead of him on the impactful list totaled exactly…zero. Forbes ranked him at No. 8 on its annual listing of richest global athletes, with an estimated $52.9 million in earnings last year.
When faced with an opportunity to fall on his sword last week at the Memorial Tournament—where Mickelson made his first appearance since the SEC details went public—Lefty instead fell on his wallet.
“Going forward, I'll make the best effort I can to make sure I represent myself, as well as my family, as well as my companies, in the way that I want to and they deserve,” he said.
Gotta protect those endorsement earnings.
The case screams for internal sanctions of some sort, if not a public suspension. Imagine if Bryce Harper, LeBron James or Tom Brady were linked to betting losses with the biggest gambling figure in America. The blowback would explode the Internet.
Finchem merely bobbed and weaved. Then again, the tour is complicit in the affair to a degree, too. Walters has played in the Pebble Beach Pro-Am, where amateurs tee it up alongside tour players during live fire. In other words, Mickelson’s benevolent dictator makes, breaks and bends the rules as he sees fit.
The hypocrisy of having a codified rule against fraternizing with unabashed Vegas gamblers, then allowing them to play in PGA Tour-sanctioned events, did not pass without query.
“That's a very good question, but I'm not going to answer it today,” Finchem said when the disconnect was questioned.
Another FYI: Gambling during PGA Tour practice rounds at tournament venues is also against tour rules, yet Mickelson’s practice-round money matches with other tour players are an open secret. Selective enforcement, indeed.
Lefty loves the adrenaline, embraces the action, and sits in the front row on roller-coasters (really). In 2008, he made a cameo appearance in a high-stakes, trash-talking match in an episode of HBO’s Entourage, where he played himself. Hey, as far as the gambling thing goes, all he had to do was act naturally.
A truly symmetrical twist was added on the same day last week in which Finchem again waved off discussing the Mickelson affair. The tour announced that it had just entered into an agreement with a Mexican company to sponsor a mega-money World Golf Championships event starting next year in Mexico City. The company’s owner had been red-flagged a decade earlier for iffy stock dealings by the SEC, too, to the tune of a $109 million profit. He was fined $7.5 million and banned for five years from holding any CEO positions at U.S.-listed corporations.
Predictably, Finchem had no problem with that, either.
“We concluded that, given all the facts, it should not be something that would preclude us to do this particular transaction and all of its elements,” he said.
Anything else wouldn’t be benevolent, would it?
Steve Elling covers golf for Bleacher Report. You can follow him at @EllingYelling