Legendary golfer Phil Mickelson is affectionately nicknamed “Phil the Thrill” by his adoring fans. The left-handed golfer often sprays the ball wildly off the tee, setting up dazzling birdies, magical par saves, and head-scratching bogeys from thick rough, trees, and bunkers.
His short game is superb, and Mickelson never lacks creativity around the greens. Watching him play a unique style of golf while willingly interacting with fans is exhilarating, especially for a sport that often seems to lack engaging characters.
A putt from 78 yards.
A full swing from 34 feet.
"Phil the Thrill" makes par. ¯_(ツ)_/¯#QuickHits pic.twitter.com/jCwFdzGvys
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) July 19, 2020
Mickelson’s go-for-broke playing style entertains fans, making him one of the most popular PGA Tour players over the last few decades. That aggressive mentality translates off the course, as illuminated by Alan Shipnuck’s new book, Phil, The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar, detailing Lefty’s ill-advised, somewhat reckless sports betting habits.
Sports Handle received an advance copy of the biography, which officially publishes Tuesday, and spoke with Shipnuck about how Mickelson fits into the world of sports betting.
“It’s always sort of been part of Phil’s legend,” Shipnuck said in the interview. “It’s definitely part of his brand. It’s the way he plays the game. It’s the way he lives his life. He likes the action. He likes energy. He likes high stakes.”
Book reveals some of Mickelson’s losses
Perhaps the most noteworthy gambling tidbit from the book relates to the Billy Walters insider trading investigation. Walters, a famous sports bettor, used to be friends with Mickelson, and the two would go in on bets together. The relationship soured because of the insider trading investigation, which included ties to Mickelson but ultimately saw Walters receive a five-year prison sentence while no charges were pressed on Mickelson.
In Shipnuck’s reporting for the biography, he spoke to a source with direct access to documents related to the Walters investigation. Some documents revealed that Mickelson had gambling losses of more than $40 million from 2010-14.
That juicy anecdote was released in recent weeks by Shipnuck to help drum up interest in the book’s release. While the other gambling factoids aren’t as jarring, they reveal Mickelson’s constant desire to chase adrenaline on and off the course. It’s worth noting that Shipnuck’s reporting and a recent ESPN article each mention an upcoming book co-authored by Walters about Walters’ life. That book, which ESPN says could be released in 2023, may include more revealing details about Mickelson’s sports wagering habits.
“If Walters’ book is as explosive as anticipated, the damage might not be over,” the ESPN article reads. “A source told ESPN, ‘Billy Walters is not a man to be trifled with.’”
Stories in Shipnuck’s book showcase a pattern of big-money bets. One year, Mickelson took a group of about 10 people from Arizona to Las Vegas to wager on a Sunday slate of NFL games. Among those who tagged along was Tom Candiotti, a former MLB pitcher and friend of Mickelson’s.
EXCLUSIVE EXCERPT: @AlanShipnuck drops another peek at "Phil," with reflections on the Saudi fall-out, insight into Mickelson's media manipulation and gambling losses, and reminders of why so many have always cheered for this flawed champion. Read: https://t.co/RatLR59vEz pic.twitter.com/Mmh117YR9V
— Fire Pit Collective (@firepitstories) May 5, 2022
“It was like a frat party on steroids: the fellas were tossing around a football and tackling each other on the plush sofas,” an excerpt from the book reads. “‘Then the games started and things got serious,’ says Candiotti. ‘Phil swept every morning game. He was up over a million dollars.’”
Mickelson heavily researched the slate of games that Sunday, according to Shipnuck’s reporting. The star golfer’s research proved beneficial, although he was unable to just accept his winnings and head home. Instead, Mickelson gambled in the casino, putting more money on the line before firing up the private jet and heading back to Arizona with just a portion of the football winnings.
“Mickelson lost only a game or two in the afternoon, increasing his haul,” a passage in the book reads. “‘We were flying home that night, but it’s Phil’s plane, so we’re not gonna leave until he wants to, obviously,’ says Candiotti. ‘He goes down to play baccarat, and he’s struggling. We practically needed a lasso to get him out of there. He stewed all the way to the airport because he gave a lot back at baccarat. A lot.’”
Mickelson’s sports betting habits are not the focus of Shipnuck’s book – roughly 5-10% of it relates to sports wagering – but the betting passages shed light on Mickelson’s risk-seeking behavior. Anecdotes provided by his peers recall Mickelson’s disinterest in certain Sunday golf rounds while he checked NFL scores frequently to see which teams were covering the spread.
Mickelson’s risky behavior translated onto the golf course, and not just when it came to PGA tournaments.
During one private money round with a pair of amateurs and professional Mark Baldwin, Mickelson was three holes down in a match-play format when they reached the 12th tee. Mickelson confidently proclaimed he wasn’t going to lose, and he birdied five of the next six holes and finished with a closing eagle on the par-5 18th hole to win the match. The strong stretch netted a monetary amount worth the value of a “nice car.”
According to those interviewed by Shipnuck, Mickelson loves the thrill of playing for money — perhaps even more than the money he’s winning. He often seeks out money games with peers to increase the intensity of a non-tournament round.
“He likes to try and pull off crazy things against all odds,” Shipnuck said. “That’s just who he is.”
Gambling sparks PGA Tour exit?
In recent months, media coverage surrounding Mickelson hasn’t been focused on last year’s PGA Championship victory, but rather his plans to engage with the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf. Mickelson claims he wanted to explore options outside the PGA Tour to force the PGA Tour to improve, due to it having additional competition.
The willingness to be involved with a brutal Saudi Arabian regime — and Mickelson’s comments to Shipnuck calling members of the regime “scary motherf***ers” — didn’t sit well with many fans, media members, and sponsors. The backlash to his comments sparked Mickelson to take a hiatus from professional golf, and he recently withdrew from this week’s PGA Championship despite being the defending champion.
Phil returning to golf (and the media) in the friendly confines of the first LIV event instead of the circus that would be the PGA presser does make sense.
But holy shit is that sad.
— No Laying Up (@NoLayingUp) May 13, 2022
Given Mickelson’s career earnings and many notable endorsement deals, it’s fair to wonder why Mickelson even wanted to join a new league with questionable ties in the first place. Was it really to make the PGA Tour better, or is Mickelson strapped for cash? LIV Golf promised its potential players massive financial prizes each week.
“We’re in this incredibly fraught moment for professional golf where Phil was threatening to reshape the entire world order of sports, and it was this huge question: Why does he want the Saudi money so bad?” Shipnuck said. “You would just assume he’s sitting on an empire. He’s second all-time on the money list. You know he made a factor of six or seven or eight times that in endorsements. Why does Phil care about the Saudi money so much?
In Shipnuck’s eyes, sports betting losses may be a factor, considering the previous $40 million loss over a four-year span.
“In my mind, it hangs over this whole Saudi seduction,” Shipnuck said. “What has compelled him to take this money? I think understanding the size of the sports betting helps offer an answer.”
The true extent of Mickelson’s sports gambling may always be a secret he tries to keep from the public, but Shipnuck’s book offers a few insightful gambling tales about one of golf’s most famous stars. And given the looming release of Billy Walters’ book, it likely won’t be the last time Mickelson’s betting habits are discussed publicly without his approval.
Photo: Kyle Terada/USA TODAY