A Taxing Rant Carries Wrong Tone

The stage-managed press conference; the impromptu post-round scrum (of the sort that sees athletes swarmed by a gaggle of print journalists, besieged by a tangle of limbs and digital recording devices); the sober and sedate television interview: these are the mechanisms by which professional golfers connect with the masses.

Without them, they’d would be left to compete in a vacuum. Narratives would go unwritten, rivalries unspoken and million-dollar deals unsigned. No press means no tension, no intrigue and the empty spectacle of 100 sensible looking men zig-zagging across a manicured field.

An intuitive grasp of this dynamic has helped earn Phil Mickelson hundreds of millions of dollars over the two decades since his PGA Tour debut (Forbes Magazine suggests he earned over $60 million in 2011; Sports Illustrated increased the number to $67 million in 2012). Not for him the hostile monosyllables of a Ben Hogan or Tiger Woods. A master of the cogent soundbite, earnestly delivered, he’s leveraged his All-American potential to maximum effect. There have been occasional volleys of forthright opinion, modest “controversies,” but they’ve been for the most part low-risk, even helpful in burnishing his credentials as something of a straight-talking, long-driving everyman.

This is a “guy” – not a man, as such: a guy – who appreciates the mechanics of populism. He plays the press corps like Yo-Yo Mo does a Stradivarius. It’s not cynical, exactly: just pragmatic and done in good faith, but only to a point.

Which is what makes his outburst at last week’s Humana Challenge, Mickelson’s first tournament of the 2013 season, all the more intriguing.

Having signed for a second consecutive 66, the 42-year-old brand partner of Barclays, Callaway Golf, Exxon Mobil, KPMG, Grayhawk Golf Club, Rolex, Amgen/Pfizer and Golf Digest strolled to the media centre, where after delivering the requisite shot-by-shot breakdown of his performance, a voice from the crowd asked if the “political situation” had contributed to making this “an unsettling time” for Tour members.

It was a non sequitur of Palin-esque proportions. Mickelson, however, had an answer chambered and ready to fire.

“Well, it’s been an interesting offseason. And I’m going to have to make some drastic changes. I’m not going to jump the gun and do it right away, but I will be making some drastic changes.”

Drastic, you say. Like moving from California?

“I’m not sure what exactly, you know, I’m going to do yet. I’ll probably talk about it more in depth next week.  I’m not going to jump the gun, but… I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state and, you know. It doesn’t work for me right now. So I’m going to have to make some changes.”

Ch-ch-changes… You’re still a wealthy guy, though; right?

“Yeah.  I’ll probably go into it more next year or next week.  But if you add up all the federal and you look at the disability and the unemployment and the Social Security and the state, my tax rate’s 62, 63 percent. So I’ve got to make some decisions on what I’m going to do.”

That’s not really my point.

No response. Press conference over.

Mickelson has since released a statement apologizing for the offence his comments may have caused, if not their actual substance. That lecture promised for this week at Torrey Pines, where he was presumably going to blow the lid off the federal government and the state of California’s cahooting socialist agenda, has been postponed indefinitely; no graphs or balance sheets will crowd the media centre lectern.

It’s tempting to respond to Mickelson’s editorializing in kind. Like Len Burman, a Forbes blogger and Professor of Public Affairs at Syracuse University, I could challenge his arithmetic and reduce to that sky-high 62 percent effective rate to a more credible rate nearly 10 percentage points lower. I could remark upon the fact that federal marginal rates far in excess of 70 percent were a constant throughout the United States’ golden age of mid-century growth. I could even debunk the more outrageous fallacies of supply-side economics, as I see them, chief among which can be counted Steve Flesch’s assertion (ventured in support of his colleague) that increased taxation hurts society’s most vulnerable.

I could. But I won’t.

I won’t, because what I’d be circling all the while, the real source of my bafflement and frustration with Mickelson’s solo run, can’t be traced to a difference in political worldviews, necessarily. I’m far more troubled by the eloquence with which the incident speaks to the growing detachment of the PGA Tour cohort from golf’s own rank and file.

Here, the sport’s most adept and crafty reader of audiences apparently considered it prudent to pick an argument about a tax code alteration that effectively deprives him of an additional $80,000 on every $1 million earned. That such a protest would be met with anything other than universal sympathy appears not to have crossed his mind – the very publication of today’s apology makes that much apparent. From a star whose mastery of public relations has been the key to his amassing an estimated net worth of $180 million, such a misstep, so tone-deaf an engagement with the general public, is at once surprising and cruelly ironic.

And what if the irony didn’t stop there?

It’s become fashionable to deride the modern press conference as a theatre of cliches and hedged bets. If only – so the refrain goes –  they’d lighten up and answer questions honestly, free of circumlocution and understatement. Then, presumably, we’d have our characters, our humans if not our storybook heroes. But what if the gulf between the PGA Tour and the population from which it selects its chosen few is now such that in making the leap to stardom, players can’t but lose that ability to tap the populist mainline, spin charisma from intuition and empathy?

In short, what if wealth, power and insulation from all but the most pliant, starry-eyed audiences has already begun to corrode that bond between players and fans? What if presser-speak didn’t hide depth, as is commonly assumed, but hid a host of unpalatable, dollar-signed truths?

Then, I guess, we’d have a serious problem, wouldn’t we?