Lines drawn in golf’s civil war: Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy split over breakaway Super League

  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
·5-min read
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
Phil Mickelson – Lines drawn in golf’s civil war: Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy split over breakaway Super League - GETTY IMAGES
Phil Mickelson – Lines drawn in golf’s civil war: Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy split over breakaway Super League - GETTY IMAGES

Phil Mickelson is known for his mischievous sense of humour, but he was being deadly serious here at Quail Hollow on Wednesday when responding to a question about Super League Golf. "It's a big deal to give up control of your schedule,” the five-time major winner said. “I don’t know if the players would be selfless enough to do that.”

It is fair to say that even those who sympathise with the likes of Justin Rose – as the Englishman wrestles with the extraordinary dilemma of banking more than a $100 million at the risk of being booted off the sport’s two main tours, as well as the majors and the Ryder Cup – would claim it be a “selfless” act.

Certainly not Rory McIlroy who produced a rant for the ages earlier that day over why the Saudi breakaway circuit is golf’s “money grab” equivalent of football’s European Super League. However, Mickelson made the argument regardless.

“I think the fans would love it because they would see the best players play exponentially more times,” he said. “Instead of four or five times, it would be 20 times… But every other sport, the entity or teams or leagues control the schedule. Whereas here, we’re able to control it.

“We all make a very good living. We all do well. I’ve already had kids and I had the ability to control my schedule and be at big moments in their lives. If you’re a younger player, are you going to give that up?”

McIlroy’s line of debate was rather different and will surely have resonated with the overwhelming majority. The 32-year-old talked of "playing this game to try to cement my place in history and my legacy and to win major championships” and backed Monahan and the European Tour in their warnings of issuing lifetime bans.

Lines drawn in golf’s civil war: Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy split over breakaway Super League - GETTY IMAGES
Lines drawn in golf’s civil war: Phil Mickelson and Rory McIlroy split over breakaway Super League - GETTY IMAGES

The USGA, the PGA of America and the Masters – the three US bodies who run the three US majors – all issued later statements of support for the status quo. Between the lines, they declared ‘abandon tradition, say goodbye to our competitions”. Fully warranted, believes McIlroy.

“The game of golf, whether it's a right thing or a wrong thing, is so about history,” he said. "We still talk about Gene Sarazen and Walter Hagen and Ben Hogan and all those guys because that's what this game is. It's steeped in history and the legacies that those guys have. If you move further away from that, you're basically losing the essence of what competitive golf is.”

Two points should be made regarding Mickelson and McIlroy and the SGL (that was once the Premier Golf League). The former is the breakaway’s biggest supporter, who sources claim would be rewarded as the de facto leader of the rebels by a $100m up-front payment, with so much more to follow as the 50-year-old takes the heat the controversial circuit would be sure to raise.

McIlroy, meanwhile, has emerged as the most vocal opponent and some sections of the locker room are rolling their eyes because of it. As well as the SGL, McIlroy was, on Wednesday, forthright in his view of the annual $40m Player Impact Program set up by the Tour to reward those players who “positively most move the needle” – ie who are most popular with the fans. McIlroy will be guaranteed a bumper payday every year of at least $5.5m.

“I think it is a prudent move on the Tour's part to try to appease some people that were getting their heads turned by other things,” McIlroy said.

Justin Thomas, the world No 2, holds the same opinion as McIlroy. "For me, I am all about being No. 1 in the world and winning as many majors as I can," he said. “If I was to go do that, then all those things go down the drain.” But the 28-year-old did acknowledge that other pros might have another perspective. "I don't know where it's going to go because everybody feels differently and everybody's in different places in their career,” Thomas said.

Take the circumstances of not only Rose and Mickelson, but Adam Scott and Henrik Stenson, another two of the eight players known to be the Saudi’s targets as they try to assemble 12 four-man teams for an F1-style campaign around the globe, beginning September, 2022. They are in the 40s and the finish line is in sight. Unfathomable riches can be picked in the final strides.

Obviously, it is not nearly as persuasive for Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler, the younger targets. Is it really that great a proposition? Without McIlroy, Thomas, Jordan Spieth and, of course, Tiger Woods [currently injured but reportedly never interested], the SGL would not boast the sport’s biggest names. It would not be as sold in the glossy brochure.

“They first contacted me in 2014,” McIlroy said. “But seven years on nothing has really changed. No sponsorship deals, no media deals, no players have signed up, no manufacturers have signed up…. I just can't see how it happens.” Bemusement abounds on the range.