The Loneliest Masters Fan

Phil Mickelson takes notes in his pad after playing Hole No. 16 during the second round of the World Golf Championships FedEx-St. Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn. on Friday, August 6, 2021.Jrca6762
Phil Mickelson takes notes in his pad after playing Hole No. 16 during the second round of the World Golf Championships FedEx-St. Jude Invitational at TPC Southwind in Memphis, Tenn. on Friday, August 6, 2021.Jrca6762 /

The 2022 Masters Tournament is already one to remember.

Tiger Woods makes his return little more than a year after suffering a leg injury that almost cost him a limb. The golf world would have been thrilled to see Tiger play the Par 3 or even just walk around the grounds.

But no, Tiger is playing. It defies belief.

From the accounts of players who have seen his practice rounds up close this week, Tiger’s game is in fighting shape. Tiger says he’s at Augusta to win. Are you going to tell him he can’t?

The other storylines, while falling well short of the Tiger Chronicles, are compelling as well.

Can Justin Thomas – a betting favorite this week – capture his first Masters? Can Jordan Spieth find magic among the Georgia pines again? Will Jon Rahm reassert his dominance on Tour with a win? Can Collin Morikawa capture the third leg of a career Grand Slam?

Can Rory or Brooks win one to join the likes of Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros on the all-time Major wins list? Or will Hovland, Schauffele, Cam Smith, or the newly minted world #1 Scottie Scheffler, grab a first Major?

No doubt there will be many other players who rise and fall on the leaderboard, begging questions through the weekend of, “Can he hold on?”

But there is one name you won’t hear in the run-up. Indeed, I haven’t even thought about him. In two days of binge-watching the Golf Channel Masters coverage, he hasn’t been mentioned once.

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Of course, I’m talking about Phil Mickelson.

Did Phil get disinvited or make the decision to skip The Masters on his own? Perhaps he was gently nudged to recuse himself? We will never know.

The PGA hasn’t officially doled out a punishment for his Saudi Golf League indiscretions. Even so, The Masters is not a Tour event. In theory, The PGA has no say in the field. Still, Mickelson – however it played out behind the scenes – will miss his first Masters since 1994.

It should be noted that people have been banned from Augusta for far less significant insults to the game of golf. Gary Player’s son, Wayne, is under a lifetime ban for holding a sleeve of balls in the camera shot during the ceremonial first shot with Lee Elder last year.

Jack Whitaker and Gary McCord were kicked off of CBS coverage because Whitaker called the fans on the 18th hole “a mob” and McCord referred to the greens as being “bikini waxed”.

Let’s just agree the rules are pretty strict when it comes to remaining in good-standing at Augusta National.

But no player, much less a former Champion, has ever been banned.

Could Phil Mickelson also miss the U.S. Open and PGA?

It seems unlikely that Phil Mickelson will be allowed at the US Open or the PGA Championship, either. The damage he did to the game will likely force the hand of the USGA and the PGA to follow the Masters lead. Something to the effect of, “We aren’t saying you can’t play, but please don’t enter and force our hand.”

The Open at St. Andrews remains a bit of a wild card. It’s known that DP World European Tour players were a little more flirtatious with the SGL than their American cousins. Perhaps, being removed enough, The Open will allow – but maybe not embrace – Mickelson as a former Champion.

Golf is a funny sport that way. Depending on your viewpoint, it’s either steeped in tradition or fanatically archaic.

The smallest infractions can result in expulsion from a tournament. They can also cement a reputation that becomes almost impossible to shake.

As Phil spends this first week in April (the first in 29 years) not playing at Augusta, he must feel like the loneliest golfer on the planet. He deceived the PGA Tour, bad-mouthed his erstwhile Saudi sponsors, fumbled his apology, and still draws the ire of fans and pros alike.

He is no doubt gaming-out his return. My bet is a little-known Champions Tour event. One thing is certain: Phil Mickelson will not go quietly into early retirement, it’s antithetical to who he is.

Golf is a gentleman’s sport. Honest mistakes happen and are easily forgiven. They are learning moments.

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On the flip side of that coin, golf employs the Wrath of God for those that plot against it. Its rules are written in stone, not sand. More stringent than the rules are the traditions. Those that cross those defined boundaries are often branded for life.

The 2022 Masters will already be unforgettable as it marks the Resurrection of Tiger Woods. The winner will forever be welcome at Augusta for the rest of their life. There is no greater honor in golf.

But for one former Champion, it will be a very lonely week. A week he prays doesn’t turn into a lifetime.