TROON, Scotland (AP) — As Phil Mickelson struts around Royal Troon, positioning himself to make a run at a sixth major championship, there’s no doubt he remains the People’s Champion.
“Go get ‘em, Phil!” they scream at every hole of the British Open. “We love you, Phil!”
One group, crowded onto a rooftop alongside the 17th green, unveiled a sign inviting him to stop by for a serving of Scottish pancakes. No word if he took them up on the offer, but knowing Lefty, it’s not out of the question.
Yet, there’s another side to this warm-and-fuzzy story, and it’s worth remembering as Mickelson takes aim at his second British Open title.
For all the good he’s done inside and outside the ropes, this is the same guy who buddied up with a big-time gambler, supposedly got in hock to him for a lot of money, and took part in a shady stock deal that brought a nearly $1 million payoff in a matter of days.
Outside of a few embarrassing headlines when the matter came to light nearly two months ago and having to pay back his ill-gotten gain, Mickelson went largely unpunished for his highly questionable dealings as far as anyone can tell.
The feds didn’t have enough evidence to charge him with a crime. His sponsors stuck with him. And the PGA Tour, from all indications, quietly let the matter fade away without so much as a slap on a wrist.
Somehow, that doesn’t seem right.
At the very least, Mickelson’s dealings with Las Vegas gambler Billy Walters were worthy of some sort of sanction from those in charge of the game, which values honesty and integrity so highly that players are expected to call infractions on themselves.
Now, there’s no evidence of Mickelson betting on golf — outside of the harmless practice-round wagering he does with his buddies — but it’s long been known that Lefty has a fondness for sports gambling. He’s supposedly scored huge payoffs on Super Bowl and World Series wagers, and there have also been reports of him losing millions of dollars.
None of this should sit well with the folks at the PGA Tour. Just don’t expect them to come clean on how they feel about it. Unlike other major sports organizations, the tour won’t discuss any disciplinary action that it takes against its players, or even if they violated a rule.
It is known the tour forbids players from having “dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf.”
In that regard, Mickelson failed miserably.
His name turned up in a federal civil suit accusing Walters and Thomas Davis, a former corporate board member at Dean Foods, of insider trading that allowed them to make tens of millions of dollars in illicit stock trades.
While the golfer was not charged, he did agree to repay — with interest — the $931,000 he made in about a week on a single trade of Dean Foods in the summer of 2012, allegedly on a tip from Walters. An official from the Securities and Exchange Commission summed it up succinctly: “Mickelson made money that wasn’t his to make.”
So why would one of the world’s highest-paid athletes get involved in such a dubious transaction? Well, according to the SEC, he had placed bets with Walters prior to the tip, he owed Walters money at the time of the deal, and he repaid Walters a month later “in part with the proceeds of his trading.”
The tour had every right to come down hard on Mickelson for putting the game in such a negative light. It should’ve ordered him to receive counseling for his gambling (and maybe it did), but that’s not enough.
Mickelson’s actions were worthy of a suspension — three months, minimum — which would’ve knocked him out of the last three majors of 2016.
Of course, that didn’t happen.
So there was Mickelson, on the top row of the leaderboard at the British Open, the latest chapter in a brilliant career known for pulling off high-risk shots.
In the opening round, he nearly became the first player to shoot 62 in a major championship. It was a bit more of a struggle on Day 2, as Mickelson worked around a couple of bogeys for a 2-under 69 that sent him to the weekend with a one-stroke lead over Henrik Stenson.
At 46, Mickelson has a chance to become the second oldest champion in Open history, surpassed only by Old Tom Morris way back in 1867.
“I’m starting to hit shots like I did 10 years ago and starting to play some of my best golf again,” Mickelson said. “I don’t see why there’s any reason I can’t continue that, not just this week but for years.”
Hard not to cheer for someone with that sort of attitude, especially when you see him bumping fists and doling out golf balls to youngsters all the way around the course.
He can still be the People’s Champion.
He just shouldn’t be above the law.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberryap.org or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .