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TEE TO GREEN, STEVE SCOTT: Rory McIlroy outsmarted ‘genius’ Phil Mickelson all the way through the Saudi saga

Rory McIlroy, the champion golfer in 2014 - and 2022?

It hasn’t gone entirely away, but the threat of the Super/Saudi Golf League to golf’s ordered normality has been greatly diminished.

Phil Mickelson’s interview with Golf Digest’s John Huggan two weeks ago unquestionably provoked Alan Shipnuck’s early release of excerpts last week from his forthcoming biography of the player.

Those two bits of good old-fashioned journalism – letting the subject skewer himself with simple direct questioning – will be seen in times to come to be the straws that broke the Arabian camel’s back.

Doomed to fail?

But as the silence and NDA’s slowly ebb away, I think we can see that it was probably doomed to fail all along.

Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau jumped ship from the Saudis on Sunday. They were both supposedly certainties to defect. They stood to gain nine-figure sums by doing so, according to any insider you spoke to.

Phil’s comments, and the young players lining up to reject the breakaway in Los Angeles last week clearly changed their minds.

What remains is what T2G has been predicting all along. A few players in their 40s seeking a big payday as their competitiveness on the main tour inevitably wanes.

Basically, a pre-Champions Tour – clearly not what the Saudis had in mind, so it remains to be seen if they will press on.

There’s plenty of sources to credit with the effective failure of this project, and no question Phil’s scorched-earth policy will get most of it.

There’s already some trying to spin this as Mickelson’s “genius”, forcing concessions from the tour when he really didn’t want to take the Saudi coin anyway.

This would wholly fit with Phil’s own view of himself as the smartest guy in the room. But to me he’s actually been totally outsmarted by a guy who left school at 16 and didn’t even go to University.

Rory plays a blinder

Right up until he put the boot into Mickelson on Sunday night at Riviera, Rory McIlroy has played a blinder as golf’s new elder statesman.

First of all, he made clear he would have nothing to do with the PGL/SGL from the start. McIlroy was the first to say so, two years ago. He didn’t care for where the money was coming from, he said.

It was notable then that Mickelson publicly criticised him for being so definitive and not exploiting the potential “leverage” on the Tour. The battle lines were drawn that early.

And Rory was soon chair of the PGA Tour’s Policy Board and effectively leading the hierarchy Phil wanted levered.

(Mickelson has spent barely a few months on the Policy Board, the players’ vehicle for running the tour, in 30-odd years.)

All that the Tour has done to augment their package for players (more prizemoney, PIP, etc) in the last couple of years has gone through McIlroy.

Mickelson might claim the Saudi threat (blackmail, really) changed these things for the players. But it was Rory who actually did the hard graft.

No-one was or is pretending that the Tour is a perfectly-run organisation. But McIlroy was doing something about it from inside, while Phil pressed on with his precious “leverage”.

McIlroy also clearly brought together the young guns and got them all onside. The Genesis Invitational was the first time the main names have all been together in 2022. They all – Rahm, Koepka, Morikawa, Thomas, Hovland – lined up to say they weren’t going anywhere. The only one still expressing continuing interest, at least publicly, was 41-year-old Adam Scott.

DJ’s statement leads the retreat

Once it was established none of the young bucks were leaving, Dustin Johnson was left as the primary player left among the rumoured 17 to 20 defectors.

His clear statement on Sunday was swiftly – and somewhat meekly – followed by DeChambeau’s. One imagines the others are now contemplating their NDAs.

Rory couldn’t resist a sharp dig at Phil on Sunday night at Riviera. That’s understandable, Mickelson’s comments of the last two weeks were directly aimed at McIlroy and the Policy Board.

And despite Phil’s spurious claims, the accusations were totally personal. He was basically saying, laughably, that the Tour was more dictatorial than the Saudi regime.

But Mickelson had done all the necessary damage. It really didn’t need any return fire, a dignified silence would have been more cool, I think.

Perhaps the crucial move of all in all of this, however, was back in December. Speaking at his Hero World Challenge, Tiger Woods stated unequivocally he’d have nothing to do with the breakaway. It was the first time he’d spoken publicly about the entire thing.

Although Tiger will never play the Tour seriously again and despite Mickelson’s posturings, the young stars all look to Woods. Obviously they would, he’s the best player ever to play the game.

Wouldn’t you believe it, Phil lost to Tiger yet again.

Golf scribes manned the barricades

I’d also like your indulgence to give some credit where it is due to the golf media, and not just Messrs Huggan and Shipnuck.

Let’s face it, the golf scribes aren’t usually the first to the barricades unless someone takes away their free lunch. But the Saudis clearly assumed that there wouldn’t be a media backlash to their efforts at ‘sportswashing’ using golf.

Somewhat surprisingly, there has been a huge negative reaction, and a lot of it from the US writers and broadcasters. Geopolitical issues rarely infringe on their world, but this was different.

Eamon Lynch of Golfweek has been required reading on the subject for months. On screen, the Golf Channel’s Brandell Chamblee – not a noted liberal – has also been coruscating about the plans.

Many writers have been unequivocal in their opposition keeping  the subject in the public eye. Good for them (us).

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