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Review | Phil Mickelson’s big gambles are the subject of a new biography

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The space between two pine trees was about as narrow as the entrance to a phone booth, but Phil Mickelson had made up his mind to go for the green anyway from 187 yards at Augusta National’s 13th hole in the final round of the 2010 Masters.

He gripped a 6-iron, fit the ball through the gap and over trouble at Rae’s Creek, landing it some five feet from the hole, where Mickelson made birdie following the most iconic shot of his career — and one of the most revisited in golf history — on the way to winning his third green jacket.

Mickelson famously said of his decision, “A great shot is when you pull it off. A smart shot is when you don’t have the guts to try it.”

Vintage Lefty, and no better summary of how the six-time major winner conducts himself, whether on the golf course or anywhere else. That much is clear in Alan Shipnuck’s thoroughly engaging, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.”

The book is set for release two days before the start of the PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, where Mickelson had been expected to play as the reigning champion, improbably triumphing at Kiawah last year at 50 to become the oldest major winner.

But late Friday Mickelson withdrew, according to a statement from tournament officials, extending his absence from the PGA Tour that dates from his last appearance in January.

Mickelson has not played in an officially sanctioned competitive round since early February in the Asian Tour’s Saudi International at Royal Greens Country Club in Saudi Arabia. That same month comments Mickelson made to Shipnuck in November 2021 surfaced and raised a furor.

Mickelson had been discussing a potential alignment with a Saudi-funded league called the LIV Golf Invitational Series and indicated he could overlook human rights abuses if it meant players gaining more leverage on decisions typically made only by PGA Tour officials.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, according to American intelligence, ordered the assassination of Washington Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi, an outspoken critic of the prince.

“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson told Shipnuck. “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.”

Mickelson’s troubling involvement in the Saudi golf league was far more intentional and extensive than simply attaching his name to it, Shipnuck writes.

In an hour-long telephone conversation with Shipnuck, Mickelson, who did not play in this year’s Masters for the first time since 1994, outlined plans for the Saudi league, revealing he had enlisted three other “top players,” whom he declined to name, and the group paid for attorneys to write the operating agreement.

How a Saudi challenge changed the PGA Tour and Phil Mickelson’s legacy

Speculation surrounding the motivation behind Mickelson’s ties to the Saudi league swirled back to his well-documented attachment to gambling. Shipnuck chronicles Mickelson’s association with bookmakers, most notably Billy Walters. The two became partners, pooling money and sharing winnings when their bets hit.

Mickelson generated headlines for his affiliation with Walters as the result of an insider trading case. In May 2014, the FBI approached Mickelson at the Memorial Tournament hosted by Jack Nicklaus regarding a probe of suspicious sales of Clorox stock by Walters and a billionaire investor.

The New York Times reported several weeks later the FBI and the SEC “found no evidence that Mr. Mickelson traded Clorox shares.” But the story went onto say that Mickelson was not absolved completely, with both agencies continuing to investigate a theory that a source inside Dean Foods provided Walters information about the company’s plans to spin off a subsidiary in an initial public offering.

Shares of Dean Foods soared more than 40 percent in August 2012, the day after the company announced the news.

In May 2016, Walters was indicted on charges of insider trading. The SEC alleged he made $43 million on illegal tips from a Dean Foods board member who had borrowed from Walters after accumulating massive gambling debts. Mickelson, meantime, had sold his shares and repaid Walters money owed from gambling.

Shipnuck’s most stunning revelation relates to Mickelson’s gambling losses, which totaled more than $40 million between 2010 and ’14. This information came from a source with direct access to documents assembled when government auditors conducted a forensic examination of Mickelson’s finances.

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Walters went to trial in March 2017. Mickelson was not called to testify; his attorney had told both the prosecution and defense his client would invoke his Fifth Amendment rights. A jury found Walters guilty on all 10 charges, and he was sentenced to five years at a minimum-security facility in Pensacola, Fla.

Mickelson was never indicted in part, Shipnuck argues, because Walters’s case unfolded between two court rulings: the first, by New York’s 2nd Circuit in 2014, limited the government’s ability to prosecute insider trading cases; the latter, from the Supreme Court in 2016, held that “recipients of inside information could be prosecuted even if they didn’t know what the original tipper received.”

“This was the greatest escape in a life defined by them,” Shipnuck writes, fittingly encapsulating Mickelson in a biography that surely will fuel pointed questions for the World Golf Hall of Famer whenever his next event might be.

Gene Wang is a sports reporter for The Washington Post.

The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar

Avid Reader Press / Simon & Schuster. 256 pp. $30

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