Behind the goofy smile present after every deft chip shot, there is another Phil Mickelson.
Beyond a carefully crafted likeability – which has made Mickelson the most famous left-hander in golf – there is a slick side that, very fortunately for him, has not landed him prison.
The whispers about Mickelson’s reckless gambling and the vague assumptions that there was something phony about him became very loudly public this week when he was named in a federal insider trading suit.
Unlike the big-time sports gambler and the former Dean Foods executive charged in the suit, Mickelson was named only as a “relief defendant.” All the “Law and Order” episodes I’ve watched through the years do not qualify me to define exactly what that means. But reading the particulars of the suit, it is fairly obvious “Lefty” was up to his visor in sleazy associations and one very dubious deal.
His lawyer, as a lawyer must, said Mickelson was an “innocent bystander.” The innocent bystander who just happened to make, by far, the largest stock purchase of his life – $2.4 million in Dean Foods – selling it just weeks later after the company announced a spin-off that sent the stock soaring. Mickelson reportedly is to return the profit, plus interest (amounting to around $1 million). Part of the initial profit was used, said the SEC (Security and Exchange Commission, not Southeastern Conference) to pay off gambling debts to the man who passed along the illegal stock tip to Mickelson, one Billy Walters.
Those who wish to take a shower now may pause here.
This is no minor legal matter. Not for one of golf’s enduring stars. Not for the friendly face who pitches for some very image-conscious companies – such as the accounting firm of KPMG, Barclays, Rolex, Callaway and Amgen (behind the arthritis drug Enbrel).
In a statement to Bloomberg News, Callaway said: “We have had a long-standing partnership with Phil and value our relationship with him.”
Likewise in a statement, KPMG said, “While we are disappointed by what the SEC announced today, we appreciate that Phil’s statement makes clear he respects and shares the values of KPMG. We accept his statement of personal responsibility and commitment and have nothing further to add.”
For now, his defenses seem to be holding.
This is not some young innocent, easily duped along a chain of illegal insider trader information. This is a worldly 45 year old, who has pulled down nearly $80 million in career winnings (second only to Tiger Woods) and made, according to Forbes, $50 million last year when factoring in all the endorsements. The poor judgment and insipid greed apparent in this case is a sizable wart on Mickelson’s reputation.
Insider stock trading is very hazardous to one’s celebrity status. Ask Martha Stewart – although her 2004 conviction, and five-month stay in prison, was not for the stock fraud itself but rather for obstruction of justice and lying to authorities.
(She recovered nicely).
Gambling to the extent that Mickelson obviously has and dealing with the seedy culture that thrives around that vice can be ruinous of an image – ask Pete Rose. No one has claimed Mickelson has ever bet on golf, just that he bet big.
(Rose still rightfully suffers for his sins).
Mickelson was among the most root-able figures in his game. Personally, I may believe this episode has exposed a great character flaw and that there are plenty of other players out there more worthy of the public’s affection. But I get the gut feeling that this sport will treat him far kinder, and will forgive him at the first flash of that goofy smile.
I keep thinking about a Masters scenario next year in which a 46-year-old Mickelson would be coming into Amen Corner on Sunday contending to match Jack Nicklaus as the tournament’s oldest winner. The place would be electrically charged. The cheers would ring through those pines like 30,000 church bells. And no one would care about the other very real and very unlikable face of Phil Mickelson.