Phil Mickelson could not face it. He could not walk into the interview room at Southern Hills and answer the questions. And so, for the first time in the modern era, a player who is physically fit will not defend his title in a major.
Rory McIlroy was not at St Andrews in 2015 to try to retain the Claret Jug – but he had a broken ankle.
Tiger Woods was not at Oakland Hills in 2008 to attempt to hold on to the Wanamaker Trophy – but he had a broken leg.
Art Wall Jr was not at Augusta in 1960 to endeavour to keep the green jacket – but he had a broken kneecap.
X-rays will reveal nothing broken in Mickelson’s body. Except the game of golf knows differently. His reputation is broken. His finances could be broken. And Sir Nick Faldo is just one who fears that his psyche is broken.
“After all Phil said, how could he return as the same character?” Faldo, Mickelson’s fellow six-time winner, told Telegraph Sport.
How, indeed? Mickelson would have needed to perform the full mea culpa, the entire mea maxima culpa, when the furthest he has gone before in public self-admittal is “me a bit silly”.
The smartest guy in the room would have had to show humility and anyone who knows his personality, as well as his gambling instincts, recognises that Mickelson does humble like he does 50p each-way Trixies.
It does not happen, now or then, and it must be doubted even in the future.
The PGA of America had indicated they wanted Mickelson to stand up in front of the media on Monday. “Get the circus out of the way early,” was the plea from PGA of America chief executive Seth Waugh. However, Mickelson could not enter the Big Top and tackle the lions.
We should not be overly surprised, regardless of how audibly the game gulped when the USPGA organisers announced late on Friday that the reigning champion had withdrawn. Again, Faldo had spoken for many when questioning the burgeoning sense that Mickelson would appear in Tulsa.
“I think it is an unbelievable mental challenge after what he’s put himself through, simple as that,” Faldo said. “It’s not as easy as just getting back on the bike. The attention will be monumental. I don’t know whether he will be mentally ready for that. Last year was one of the most historic majors we have ever seen. But an awful lot has happened since.”
There has never been a year like it. There he was at Kiawah Island 12 months ago, at the age of 50 becoming the oldest major winner ever, rewriting what was possible for veterans everywhere. And here is now, not merely a fallen veteran with his aura bloodied seemingly beyond repair, but unable even to explain to those who remain his devoted admirers why he cannot stage the defence his heroics on that famous week more than deserve.
There were pictures of him playing recreational golf near his California home last week and he drove social media into a frenzy on Thursday when “liking” a tweet defending him. He “unliked” it a little later but that single keystroke signalled to Lefty fans that the fire still burns. Yet now? It appears to have been doused by trepidation.
Perhaps Mickelson witnessed the grilling that Greg Norman, the appointed leader of the Saudi revolution, received in Hertfordshire on Wednesday. “We’ve all made mistakes,” Norman said, to outrage everywhere, in relation to the state-approved murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi embassy in 2018.
Norman, a confident talker, could not begin to stop his foot from entering his mouth in that brutal hour and Mickelson might well have trembled at the thought of his own scenario.
After all, Mickelson called the Saudis “scary motherf—–s to deal with”, but opined he could manage to override his disgust with his desire to overhaul the PGA Tour. He admitted to a biographer that he paid for attorneys to draw up a players ‘charter for the breakaway circuit. He basically confessed to working actively against the Tour on which he has been a member for almost three decades, collecting more than $100 million in the process.
When he apologised for his “reckless comments” in February he offered contrition to LIV Golf – the entity overseeing the forthcoming $255 million Saudi series – but not to the Tour or, more pointedly, to its commissioner Jay Monahan, who he accused of “running a dictatorship” and of possessing “abhorrent greed”.
Inevitably, there have been rumours that Mickelson has been competitively absent for three months because of a ban, but the PGA Of America were at pains in Friday’s statement to insist “he would have been welcomed” just as Augusta did last month when he missed his first Masters in 28 years.
He would have been asked about this and so much more. It just so happens that biographer, Alan Shipnuck, is releasing the book on Tuesday. “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorised!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colourful Superstar” will be hot on the shelves and even hotter in the notebooks.
It contains revelations that Mickelson lost $40 million in gambling during a four-year period in which the FBI were investigating him for insider trading. Certainly, the dirt is not limited to his alliance with the Saudis, although it may well be intertwined, considering LIV offering him $100 million-plus to be their on-course leader.
With word of trouble at home, the issues would have disappeared around the dogleg on which Mickelson would have been badgered. No he could not face it, but will have to one day. Probably at that first $25 million LIV event at the Centurion Club in St Albans in three weeks’ time. He may figure that the spotlight will not be as bright, but he should be mindful that the glare will still sting.