Did Phil Sell Out Golf, USA Over Gambling Debt?

The last 48 hours I’ve been barraged by emailers and media friends gossiping about the personal life of Phil and Amy Mickelson. I’m trying to steer clear of anything involving cancer-stricken Amy, but I did look closer at all the Mickelson gambling rumors that have circulated the past decade or so.

Phil Mickelson Benched At The 2004 Ryder Cup

(Mickelson’s Callaway also paid John Daly’s $1.7M gambling debt)

By studying all that’s been credibly written during that time about Mickelson’s propensity to play the tables and bet NFL, some dot-connecting should give serious pause to many of Phil’s new-found fans. (And those lovable amnesiacs in your life.)

On Sept. 18, 2004, Tom Boswell of the WASHINGTON POST wrote a scathing piece about Mickelson’s bizarre and ill-fated decision to switch from Titleist clubs, which he’d just played to his first major championship win at The Masters, to Callaway clubs only one week before the 2004 Ryder Cup. A Ryder Cup in which Mickelson performed poorly, signaling an embarrassingly lopsided loss to the Europeans.

Phil Mickelson took cash over country. Lefty rolled the dice. It may prove the worst gamble of his risk-taking career.

Of course, with about $80 million of Callaway Golf’s money under his pillow, maybe Phil will sleep like a baby.

When the Ryder Cup resumes Saturday morning, Mickelson, perhaps the best golfer in the world, will be on the bench for the American team, kicked out of the lineup in shame by disgusted captain Hal Sutton.

At sundown, after the worst day in the history of the U.S. Ryder Cup team, Sutton was asked if Mickelson’s switch in equipment from Titleist to Callaway just two weeks ago might have contributed to the two stunning defeats that Mickelson and Tiger Woods suffered at the hands of two European pairings. Sutton mulled the idea.

“We’ll all want answers to that. But the most important person that’s going to have to wonder about that is going to be Phil Mickelson.

“It’s not going to cause us any grief in the morning because he’s going to be cheering instead of playing.” 

Just before Mickelson’s club switch and his subsequent, disastrous Ryder Cup, USA TODAY, via GOLFWEEK, reported that Lefty still had 16 months left on his contract with Titleist, worth more than $4 million a year.

The quick decision to dump Titleist for Callaway also came at a time when Mickelson was playing the best golf of his life. He had finally broken through at Augusta National to win his first major, then came within a combined five shots of winning the other three majors. More:

Golfweek cited unidentified sources as saying Mickelson and his agent, Steve Loy of Gaylord Sports Management, asked Titleist to renegotiate the deal after Mickelson won the Masters. But Titleist refused, and discussions followed that enabled Mickelson to get out of the deal.

Two weeks later Mickelson was playing the most prestigious team golf competition in the world, the Ryder Cup, with clubs he’d tried out for a single day at Callaway’s SoCal headquarters in Carlsbad, CA.

That’s almost as strange as Mickelson wanting to suddenly renegotiate a contract with a company that had stuck with him through lean times - with only 16 months left on the deal

So why on earth did Lefty need the $80M from Callaway so quickly that he would end up embarrassing himself (and his country) at the Ryder Cup?

Previous to Mickelson’s abrupt equipment change, there’d been plenty of rumors about his enthusiasm for gambling in Vegas and betting NFL.

From a Jack McCallum SPORTS ILLUSTRATED piece on Mickelson in 2002:

He made frequent trips to Las Vegas when he was in college but now goes only occasionally, usually with Amy, and plays baccarat. His passion for poring over NFL agate (he spent much of his 12-hour flight to the British Open studying preseason magazines, committing to memory the most obscure player moves), suggests a gambling Jones, as do the six TVs (including an 80-incher), each with its own satellite receiver, that beam every NFL game into the Mickelson house in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif. But he says he rarely bets on pro football, the preseason Super Bowl wager being an exception. “You can’t win betting the NFL,” he says, and Mickelson gambles to win.

But after the 2004 crazy club endorsement deal switcheroo that netted Mickelson $80M, the gambling rumors that were fueled by anecdotes in the media from Mickelson himself suddenly morphed into gambling debt rumors.

So with that gambling debt talk swirling, what did Mickelson do? Write a book in early 2005, called One Magical Sunday.

As part of his publicity for the book, Mickelson told GOLF Magazine that he hadn’t gambled since 2003 - after the difficult birth of his son Evan: “Evan. I don’t really want to get into that, but it’s in my new book, One Magical Sunday. But I did it for Evan.

Mickelson also confirmed those comments to USA Today.

Up to now, there’d been absolutely no reason to believe the rumors that Mickelson’s switch to Callaway was related gambling debts.

Then there’s Mickelson’s 2005 Masters press conference:

Q: You were quoted in Golf Magazine recently saying that you made the decision two years ago to stop gambling
A: Mickelson: I never said that.

Q. The quote that I have here is, “I heard you haven’t gambled since 2003; is that true?” And your quote here is, “Yes, it is, March, actually.” I was wondering why.
A: Mickelson: I just referred to my book, Chapter 13, and I’ll do the same with you.

Q. I’m afraid I haven’t had a chance to read it.
A: Mickelson: It’s at every bookstore (laughter from media).

After that interview, Barker Davis of the WASHINGTON TIMES broke the dam, via SPORTS BUSINESS DAILY:

In DC, Barker Davis reports “this week’s most outrageous rumor for the caddie clique” is that Mickelson switched from Titleist to Callaway last September “because he has run up considerable gambling debts.” But Callaway officials “are irate about the rumor and yesterday explained that … they had an intensive background check done on Mickelson’s gambling history.” A Callaway source: “It came back completely clean” 

The LONDON TELEGRAPH then reported Jim Rome piling on after the report from Davis:

 ”Callaway angrily deny this, saying they did an extensive check on Mickelson’s gambling history. The fact that Callaway felt it necessary to do an intensive background check or that Mickelson even has a gambling history to speak of, tells you something right there. It’s always dicey to comment on rumour and innuendo, but where there’s smoke, there’s fire and right now there’s an awful lost of smoke coming off Phil Mickelson.”

That leads us to perhaps the most telling interview Mickelson did about the controversy, with Mark Cannizzaro of the NEW YORK POST after The Masters in May, 2005.

“It’s been very interesting to hear some of the stuff that’s been said about me - some of the hurtful stuff, some of the malicious rumors I’ve heard about me,” Mickelson said.

When Mickelson abruptly withdrew from a tournament in Las Vegas last fall, rumors swirled like storm clouds that he’d spent the night gambling and couldn’t answer the bell for his Saturday tee time.

Mickelson, however, said he became violently sick to his stomach on the way to the course and went directly to the hospital - causing alarm at the tournament, where organizers were for a short time unaware of his status.

“One minute I heard I was up $4 million and the next minute I heard I was down $4 million,” Mickelson said of the stories. “It was ridiculous.”

Despite the fact that the last time anyone checked, gambling is legal in Las Vegas and in other places, Mickelson could not be more vehement in his insistence that he hasn’t gambled since his son, Evan, was born in March of 2003 after a pregnancy that was so difficult he nearly lost both Evan and his wife.

“I’m allergic to smoke and I don’t like the taste of alcohol,” Mickelson said. “So, the only [vice] I enjoyed was gambling a little bit, and that was kind of the only bargaining chip that I could find two years ago with Evan’s birth.”

Mickelson - who wrote about the reason he ceased gambling in the book he and Amy wrote, titled “One Magical Sunday” - has been reticent to talk publicly about the gambling, he says, because he feels like it only adds fuel to the rumors.

When Mickelson made a controversial equipment switch from Titleist to Callaway just before last fall’s Ryder Cup, for example, rumors ran rampant that Callaway had assumed gambling debts that he couldn’t afford to pay. The company’s founder, the late Ely Callaway, was said to have paid some of John Daly’s debts when he signed Daly, which is probably the reason Mickelson was tagged with those rumors.

Another source of the rumors’ momentum came from Mickelson’s much-publicized bet, with a group of friends, on the Ravens to win the 2001 Super Bowl. The group won nearly $500,000 at 28-1 odds.

His reputation was further burnished when the PGA Tour slapped him on the wrist for making a $500 wager with fellow golfer Mike Weir at the NEC Invitational that August and, later, after he and friends won $60,000 by picking the Diamondbacks to beat the Yankees in the World Series.

“When I hear things said that are malicious, I have to call every one of the companies I represent and let them know,” said Mickelson, when asked how he handles the constant innuendo. ” . . . I’ve had to make sure everyone knew what was being said and how it wasn’t true.

“As a representative of a company, I take that really seriously, because a lot of companies shy away from having individuals represent them because of the philosophy that events don’t fail; people do.

Every one of my companies have done background checks - and I want them to, I encourage it, because they’re taking a huge leap of faith trusting me with their product and being a part of their company.”

Interesting was Cannizzaro’s noting that Mickelson, “has been reticent to talk publicly about the gambling, he says, because he feels like it only adds fuel to the rumors.”

That’s exactly what Tiger Woods agent Mark Steinberg said to reporters last week on why he hasn’t denied his involvement in any of his client’s extramarital affairs.

Mickelson wonders why the published reports and rumors persist about how his alleged gambling debts may have led to a hasty deal with Callaway which effectively sold the U.S. down the river in the 2004 Ryder Cup, yet he’s never denied any of it.

I want to believe that Mickelson didn’t cheat the game of golf and his country because of his alleged gambling debts. I really do.

But Lefty won’t let me.