Need to Know

The feds are talking to Phil Mickelson about a suspiciously timed stock deal. It may not be insider trading—but it's a reminder that he's a competitor who's always looking for an edge
June 16, 2014

PHIL MICKELSON knows too much. That reputation has dogged him for years, and not without cause. I've heard Mickelson hold court on the intricacies of ethanol (to a pro-am partner), the California tax code (to a live microphone) and the NFL (to me). Strict constructionists will tell you he's won five majors, but he's sort of won six. At the 2001 Super Bowl, Mickelson and a few friends collected on their 28-to-1 preseason bet that the Ravens would win it all. Phil's gang took home $560,000.

All of which is to say that the FBI and the SEC are late to the party in accusing Mickelson of being a know-it-all. The difference this time is that the implication isn't just that Lefty can be annoying at parties—it's that he engaged in insider trading, which carries the threat of prison time. As the Hall of Famer preps for this week's U.S. Open, the one major he needs to complete a career Grand Slam, the feds are asking why Mickelson and Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters reportedly bought Clorox stock just before activist investor Carl Icahn's takeover bid sent the stock price soaring in 2011.

FBI agents spoke to Mickelson after his opening round at the Memorial in Dublin, Ohio, two weeks ago, presumably to ask him whether he got the inside scoop from Walters, who's said to be a friend and sometime golf partner. Icahn, who according to The Wall Street Journal knows Walters through shared connections in Las Vegas, said that he'd never heard of Mickelson and called any insider-trading accusations "inflammatory and speculative."

So far Mickelson, who at 43 is in the throes of an off year—no top 10s in his first 13 events—faces no formal charges, and he told reporters at the Memorial that he had done "absolutely nothing wrong." He would not discuss the stock purchase in question, or talk about his friendship with Walters, who last week said it was "preposterous" to think he would indulge in insider trading. Michael McCann, a legal analyst for SI, suggests that Mickelson may be a pawn, a high-profile source investigators can press for information as they attempt to build a case against Icahn and/or Walters.

Whether Mickelson is guilty or innocent, his involvement looks less preposterous than predictable. He has always been a gambler on and off the course, improving his odds with meticulous preparation and counterintuitive gambits. He has played with two drivers, no driver and a driver that's actually a 3-wood (don't ask) in an effort to think outside the tee box, with mixed results. Indeed, Clorox-gate might be a story that is less about money than course knowledge, as it were. The thrill of beating the best has long been one of Mickelson's guilty pleasures.

But while it's easy to see Phil taking a stock tip on the golf course, he's more about mischief than misdemeanor. In 2001 he told me he stayed in touch with his alma mater, Arizona State, in part by playing touch football with members of the golf team. "He's a good quarterback," said then ASU junior Matt Jones, who won the Shell Houston Open in April. "But on defense you're supposed to count to four, and he counts to three and then comes, so basically he blitzes every time."

Another anecdote: When Mickelson was 15, he was playing poker with his eight-year-old brother, Tim. When Tim got up to use the bathroom, Phil stacked the deck. Upon Tim's return, he was thrilled to find he'd been dealt a straight flush, king high. He bid the pot up to eight dollars in pennies, only to learn big brother had a straight flush, ace high. At least Phil fessed up—more than a month later.

The sly lefty's desire to stay a step ahead of the competition and to be the smartest guy in the room may have put him in an uncomfortable position, but it has also made him one of the game's greats and a joy to cover, regardless of what happens with the feds' questioning or in the U.S. Open.

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