In New York on Friday, a jury finally returned a verdict in the case of William “Billy” Walters. He was convicted on fraud and conspiracy charges. According to prosecutors, Walters made more than $40m through insider trading between 2008 and 2014. This was the fourth time the authorities had gone after him and the first time they had succeeded. Walters, 70, is one of the most famous gamblers in the US today. He once made $400,000 on a single hole of golf, and a flat million on a round. On Saturday, outside the Manhattan federal court, he told reporters he had “just lost the biggest bet of my life”. All of which would have nothing much to do with the Masters, if it were not for the fact Phil Mickelson was named as a potential witness in the case.
According to the prosecution, Mickelson got a stock tip from Walters. Mickelson agreed to turn over the $1m profit he made on the trade and was not charged with any wrongdoing. He wasn’t called, either, after his lawyers said he would plead the fifth. During jury selection, the judge presiding over the case, P Kevin Castel, decided to dismiss one person from the jury pool because “a look of rapture” came over his face when Mickelson’s name was first mentioned. Which sounds about right. Mickelson is still one of the most popular golfers in the US, always a top draw at Augusta. And in the third round here, Lefty was paired with one of the few men who contend with him on that score, Jordan Spieth, so the galleries around him were thicker than ever.
Mickelson has had a lot to say this week about the morality of ball-marking on tour. He called out “a number of guys on tour who are loose with how they mark the ball”, and “will move the ball two, three inches in front of their mark, and this in an intentional way to get it out of any type of impression”. He has been noticeably less keen in recent weeks to talk about the ins and outs of his involvement with Walters, even after court documents revealed Mickelson had paid him $1.95m in 2012, reportedly to settle a gambling debt. Anyway, after two wildly windy days at Augusta National, on Saturday the air was so still it hardly disturbed the plumes of blue smoke that hang around Mickelson on the course, there being so many cigar-smokers in his crowd.
It was, in short, a good day for a gambler to start betting big. Mickelson could sniff it. He out-drove Spieth on the 1st, struck his second to 10 feet, and made the putt for birdie. On the second, he played an audaciously brilliant approach, which fetched up on the back of the green and sent a great wave of raucous applause rippling up the fairway and across the course. He missed the eagle putt from 15 feet or so but had a tap-in for birdie. Mickelson had rolled, and won. Those back‑to‑back birdies put him two under for the tournament, in the thick of it. And then he got to the 3rd, Flowering Peach, a mean uphill par four, where he forgot Kenny Rogers’ golden rule of gambling. Know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.
Mickelson chose to hit an iron-shot off the tee, where Spieth and plenty of others were playing a driver. He sliced it left into a bunker. From there, he splashed out to the foothills of the upslope, then chunked a chip, decided to putt from 20 feet off the green, and finished up with a double-bogey six. “Damn rookie error, Phil,” said one of his fans. So the gains he had just made were given away again and he was back where he began at even par. Worse luck, he had only just got his mojo running and now it had misfired on him. At the 6th he left his tee shot short on the left side and had to chip across the breadth of the green. He misread it and his ball rolled down towards Spieth’s feet, well shy below the pin. From there, it took Mickelson two putts to get in.
That bogey was followed by another at the 8th, where Mickelson hit his approach way over the back, and the 9th, where he took three putts after making a dreadful mess of his first. That put him back to three over. Mickelson’s rollercoaster inconsistency made for a sharp contrast with Spieth, who played the front five in level par. He picked up his first birdie at the 6th, added another at the 8th, where his approach caught a lucky break off a mound by the side of the green, and the 9th, where his pinpoint approach left him a 10-foot birdie putt. While Mickelson was scrambling to keep control of his round, Spieth was easing up the leaderboard. He picked up two more shots at the pair of par fives on the back nine.
Mickelson steadied himself at Amen Corner in level par, picked up another birdie at the 15th, and played the back nine in one under par. Still, though, that left him two over for the day, and the tournament, off the lead and out of the action.
“You’re either a hustler,” as Walters once said in an interview with Barbara Walters, “or you’re being hustled.” His lawyers say they are going to appeal. Unfortunately for Mickelson, Augusta National doesn’t have the option.