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Phil Mickelson’s controversy and Saudi ‘sportswashing,’ explained


Phil Mickelson’s controversy and Saudi ‘sportswashing,’ explained

Phil Mickelson is in hot water. Now he’s backpedaling, and trying to dance around astonishing, insensitive comments made to author Allen Shipnuck. In the middle of a huge controversy of the golfer’s own making, Mickelson’s sponsors are jumping ship — separating themselves from the athlete.

At the heart of all this is an existential threat to Mickelson’s carefully crafted public image, cultivated and maintained for decades. For many it was the first glimpse of who the golfer is when the cameras are off, and it was ugly. Now we go back to how this all unfolded to explain how we so quickly went from Mickelson being a face of golf, to a pariah.

A battle is underway for the future of golf

The PGA Tour has been the home of professional golf in the United States since 1968, running and operating all tournaments (outside of majors) inside the country. The player owned and operated entity has maintained a careful balancing act to keep the numbers to run tournaments, while keeping the handful of elite, household-name players happy.

Recently there has been friction, much as there was when the PGA Tour splintered off from the PGA in the 1960s. Those elite players are once again upset with PGA Tour leadership, and wanting an even larger slice of the pie when it comes to revenue. As writer Alex Kirshner wrote for Slate:

“The tour’s internal class divide cracked the door open, and other factors have piled in to threaten the circuit’s unchallenged status as the best tour in the world. The tour leadership’s mismanagement is one such factor. Another is that golf is a great way for a bad actor—say, a shady real estate developer or a murderous crown prince—to launder his reputation in the West.”

Enter Saudi Arabia, and LIV Golf. It is an upstart organization with Greg Norman as its public face, looking to lure top players away from the PGA Tour. LIV Golf is offering huge money, and unparalleled scheduling freedom to have top golfers play in a Super League, backed and funded by Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. It’s part of the nation’s “sportswashing” campaign, which involves using…

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