Remember the day, not so many years ago, when we watched the Everyman Golfer being greeted on the Augusta green by a photogenic wife and two camera-ready little girls? Remember all the giddily good vibes from afar, from the millions of us who were exulting that golf's humble Joe Frazier type had finally triumphed over his imperious Ali-like rival?
Flash forward to last week, when Phil Mickelson was approached after playing a round on Thursday at the Memorial. We can presume that Mickelson already wasn't in the best of moods, after finishing bogey-double-double, but things went downhill anyway. The confab wasn't captured by cameras, but again, we can presume that the sight of it wasn't nearly as heartwarming as that family greeting on the 18th green at Augusta, back in the day. This greeting party consisted of some emissaries from a league called the FBI. They had some questions about some stock trades involving Clorox, dating to July 2011, that seemed not so squeaky clean. The price of the stock had risen steeply after billionaire investor Carl Icahn announced that he was making an unfriendly (and eventually unsuccessful) bid to take over the bleach boys.
The logical progression of events would have gone like this: (a) Icahn told one Billy Walters about his intent to grab Clorox, said revelation not necessarily being illegal. (Forbes has called Walters "one of the nation's most high-profile sports bettors," noting that he once won $1 million in one round of golf.) (b) Walters, who has played with Phil at Pro Ams, told Mickelson of Icahn's intent to seize the company. (c) Phil bought some stock, and (d) voila! as the price rose, a few more mill appeared in the bank balance of a golfer whose estimated annual income is between $45 and $60 million.
Mickelson's lawyer insists that his client is not a target of the insider trading investigation, which basically rings true. It feels as if the feds just want to scare Lefty, in the hopes of nailing the gadfly Icahn -- anyone worth $24 billion makes a nice target -- while also getting to carve the notch of a famous athlete onto their pistol handle, headline-wise. The feds have been on this for more than two years, and they haven't nailed it yet.
So Mickelson bought some stock because a golfing buddy gave him a tip? To put it as articulately as possible ... no duh. Isn't that what the golf course is for? Aren't the links, we've been taught, where the One Percent do their schmoozing? And as wiser journalists than I have observed, isn't the opportunity to make connections with multimillionaires the main reason why top pros are willing to play in Pro Ams in the first place?
Do we honestly think that when Walters gave Mickelson a tip, as Walters readied to slice his drive on the 14th at some Vegas course, Phil probed him for the source of his information? Please. Wink-wink, nudge-nudge, say no more. No harm, no foul, right?
Wrong. And Mickelson was wrong, too, when he told reporters last week that he had "done nothing wrong." He's already done a lot wrong. By doing way too little.
True, it's not as if Phil has gone out of his way to portray himself as an everyman folk hero. He plays golf. He doesn't pretend to crusade for the little man. Maybe it's our fault for imparting upon him this aura of "the common man," enlisting him to represent our fraternity of duffers. How could we not love a guy with a penchant for pulling out the unlikeliest of clubs, to take the risky shot when the safe one is called for? Wasn't America built on the shoulders of people willing to shoot for the moon? Besides, Phil seems to miss as many short putts as the rest of us do. How could we not enlist him to represent us?
But this is real life, in the real world -- the world that has embraced him to the tune of $30 million annually in endorsements, because we believe in him when he says a Rolex or a gallon of ExxonMobil is worth spending our bucks on. When a guy can pick up $1.4 million for a weekend of golf in Muirfield, there ought to come a time when he invests in something other than his own fortune. Maybe, just maybe, when you have earned more money than you know what to do with, you don't just try to accumulate more. Maybe you begin to give back, in a big, big way.
So I'm not disappointed that his name surfaced in an FBI/SEC investigation; who knows what politics are involved in this thing? No, I'm disappointed that we now know that, sitting on a king's ransom, he's using stock tips to better his already bloated bank account, when he could be concerning himself and his money with better things.
Phil has a foundation, of course, and its website reveals an impressive concern for bettering the nation's educational status. The "Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy" holds annual seminars for elementary school teachers, to help them learn more effective ways of teaching. The latest website update tells of the day, two summers back, when Phil helped San Diego's "1,500 neediest schoolchildren" by gifting them with "Start Smart Saturday," which is described as a "back-to-school shopping spree."
It's a start. A very, very small one. Assuming he appreciates statistics, here are a few more numbers concerning those teachers, and what they're up against, if they still have a job next fall in an era of massive coast-to-coast layoffs. According to the Program for International Student Assessment, the U.S. is going precipitously backwards on the global educational stage. The PISA's latest study, in 2012, showed us 30th in math, 23rd in science. We're 19th in reading, down from ninth three years earlier. Closer to home for Lefty, one entire quarter of the worst 100 school districts in the nation are in California, including three in Los Angeles, just north of his hometown, where an average of 5,000 teachers were being laid off per year.
So instead of buying sweatshirts for 1,500 kids, how about taking this year's endorsement earnings and put a million dollars into each of those California 25 districts, so they can start getting those teachers back? And then do the same next year with another 25? And make it an annual deal? It's not as if you need the coin. But those teachers do.
You want to regain some goodwill? You want us to see you as a champion of the little guy? Did you happen to read about that little guy Zuckerberg, who just pledged $120 million to California schools?
Your shot. Pull out the big club: the pen.
And yes, you could write it off.