DUBLIN, Ohio: Phil Mickelson found out Saturday how contentious the questions can be when they’re not about birdies and bogeys, but rather an investigation led by the FBI and the Securities and Exchange Commission into allegations he participated in insider trading.
Presumably about 40 members of the Memorial Tournament media who surrounded him — including six television cameras, the national PGA Tour press corps and several Ohioans — were just warming him up for his next round with the feds.
Despite attempts to limit the four minutes he spoke to golf, valiant journalists pressed on.
“How close are you and [gambler] Billy Walters and did you know where he got the stock advice he gave you?” one asked.
“Did you invest in Clorox at his advice and did you invest in Dean Foods at his advice?” another said, to which Mickelson responded, “You should know, you wrote the article.” (The man was representing one of the news outlets that reported the story, but was not the author.)
Mickelson stuck to his statement released Saturday morning, saying again he’d done “absolutely nothing wrong” and that he has been “fully cooperating with the FBI agents and I’m happy to do so in the future, too, until this gets resolved.” He said he’s expecting a resolution “hopefully shortly.”
So when he later reiterated, “I’ve been cooperating in every way I can,” one media member retorted, “Except in this case.”
“Well, not with you,” he said, drawing a few laughs, “but with the people who are doing the investigating.”
Whether Mickelson’s stock transactions were criminal or coincidence is up to the federal government to decide. Of more pressing interest to his faithful gallery — not as massive as usual because Adam Scott and Bubba Watson were also on the course at Muirfield Village Golf Club — is how the investigation will affect his game.
The U.S. Open, the only major that has eluded Mickelson, is two weeks away at Pinehurst No. 2. Mickelson recently told ESPN.com’s Rick Reilly that he would win at least one U.S. Open and make the 2016 U.S. Olympic team. Although he turns 44 on June 16, Mickelson vowed, “The next five years are going to be the best of my career.”
Will this investigation be the distraction that shatters those lofty goals?
Or will it sharpen his focus and make him more determined to prove everyone wrong?
In the short term, it may not help. Mickelson was reportedly approached by FBI agents at Teterboro airport in New Jersey last year, but said it hadn’t been a distraction “until Thursday.”
No one knows if that meant after the first round, when he said he was followed by investigators after he finished, or during, as he stumbled home with double bogeys on the last two holes. Considering his public relations man walks with him during his round, it’s entirely possible Mickelson received word that federal agents had arrived before he reached the 18th green. After Saturday’s round, he stands 2 under par, 10 shots behind leader Bubba Watson.
A winner of 43 tournaments on the PGA Tour, Mickelson has gone since last July 21 at Muirfield in Scotland without a victory. He has no top 10 finishes this year, his best a tie for 11th at the Wells Fargo Championship on May 4.
So it may have been a distraction before Thursday.
Those in Mickelson’s gallery Saturday seemed more concerned about his propensity for wayward shots coming home. During the final three holes, I heard no one bring up the investigation.
“Another one. We’re not following him all day,” said a man to his female companion when Mickelson’s second shot fell short of the green at 17.
Mickelson remained his smiling, charming self. When two young girls chanted, “Phil, Phil, Phil,” as he walked to the 18th tee, he handed a ball to one wearing a purple shirt that matched his color of the day. The other had on purple shorts.
“They both got a Phil ball and a Keegan [Bradley] ball,” said their father, from Powell, Ohio. “I thought they’d want to go home at 10 o’clock. Now I can’t get them to go home.”
Mickelson signed autographs for 10 minutes after he met the media, then was whisked away.
These may be trying times, but Mickelson has been through plenty of those. His wife, Amy, and mother have battled breast cancer. Amy and son Evan nearly died during Evan’s birth in 2003. He was diagnosed with psoriatic arthritis in 2010. He was 0 for 46 in majors before his breakthrough victory at the 2004 Masters and has now won five.
It has to be unsettling for Mickelson to be followed by the FBI. But there’s nothing in his recent past that suggests he will buckle during this investigation.
Will the allegations produce unmanageable angst that will derail his career and threaten his popularity? Not necessarily. Unless he’s playing the U.S. Open, Mickelson has thrived under pressure before.
Marla Ridenour can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read the her blog at www.ohio.com/marla. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MRidenourABJ and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/abj.sports.