Believe it or not, there's no PGA Tour statistic called Strokes Gained While Being Investigated for Insider Trading, so in the curious case of Phil Mickelson we're pretty much treading through uncharted waters.
In advance of next week’s U.S. Open, though, that’s what we really want to know. Short of questions such as, “Is he guilty?” and “What will happen if he’s guilty?” the one on everybody’s mind following the report that he’s being investigated by the FBI and SEC is, “How will this affect his performance at the one tournament he so desperately wants to win?”
This is the kind of wearisome narrative that prefaces so many big-time sporting events. It’s sexier than asking how the lack of rough at Pinehurst will impact the leaderboard; it’s more targeted and specific than asking who might contend next week.
We’ve already sent three major storylines through the carwash. Tiger is injured; Adam is married; Rory is single. Been there, done that. And so now the focus turns to Mickelson’s life-long quest to become a U.S. Open champion, the one career goal which has always eluded him.
There is no blueprint for determining how this kind of distraction will affect him, but here are some things we already know about how Mickelson has dealt with adversity in the past:
• He played in 46 majors without a victory, his inefficiency turning into a punch line on late-night talk shows, then rebounded to win not one, but five so far.
• He witnessed both his wife and mother undergoing treatments for cancer and returned to win more majors.
• He underwent his own issues with arthritis and has won a major since then, too.
Mickelson has proven he’s nothing if not buoyant, golf’s answer to Teflon. He is the game's all-time leader in mowing down inquisitive questions from the press while wearing a ubiquitous smile on his face. All of which should leave him confident that this, too, shall pass – no, not the investigation, but the constant consternation over it.
Actually, it already has. The story broke on Friday evening, well after Mickelson had finished his second round at the Memorial Tournament. When he finished playing the next day, he was predictably – and rightly – besieged with questions about the investigation and how it might affect him going forward.
By the next day, he had already so carefully deflected all inquiries regarding this that his post-round interview session included zero questions on the topic.
On Wednesday, following his pro-am round at the FedEx St. Jude Classic he was only indirectly asked about the ongoing investigation. He was asked if he is able to just focus on golf, whether he’s worried about his image, if the legal situation is bothering him.
To the last question, he offered the same response that he so often chose last Saturday: “I can’t really go into it right now, but hopefully soon.”
If these queries are weighing so heavily on Mickelson’s mind that they’re greatly affecting him, then he’s got one heck of a poker face.
It makes sense, though: The initial reports suggested he’s known about this investigation for a few years now. Just because the rest of us know about it now, that shouldn’t make it any more difficult for him.
The truth is, Mickelson was dealing with this matter last summer, too, when he improbably captured the Scottish Open, then backed it up by even more improbably capturing the Open Championship. If he was able to find success during the investigation then, there’s no reason to think he wouldn’t be able to now.
That’s not to say he will win or contend or even make the cut next week at Pinehurst, site of the first of his six career U.S. Open runner-up results. If he doesn’t, the narrative will still revolve around the investigation. The public takeaway will be that Mickelson couldn’t handle the extra pressure of competing while his dirty laundry was being aired for all to see.
That would be overlooking the obvious, though. If he isn’t a factor at next week’s tournament, it will likely have more to do with the fact that he owns an uncharacteristically spotty record this year – that doesn’t yet include a single top-10 – and the even more pertinent fact that he’s dealing with so many ghosts of U.S. Open past.
Or maybe not. Maybe Mickelson will fail to play his best golf, and then bare his soul, allowing that the investigation negatively impacted his preparation and performance.
So far, that isn’t the case. There is no master diagram to playing elite-level golf while undergoing an insider-trading investigation – and there’s no way of knowing how it will affect a player. From what we’ve seen out of Mickelson over the past few days, however, he’ll continue flashing that ubiquitous smile and deflecting all inquiries.
It’s been working so far. There’s no reason to think that will change next week.