SAN DIEGO — Phil Mickelson was at his self-deprecating best as he met the media at the Farmers Insurance Open on Wednesday, and not because the Hall of Fame lefthander kept reporters waiting for more than an hour.
"This reminds me a lot of Winged Foot in 2006, where I hit a drive way left off the tents," Mickelson said, alluding to his most painful United States Open loss. "So this happened to be way right, but off the tents. You know, I've made some dumb, dumb mistakes, and, obviously, talking about this stuff was one of them."
Speaking to reporters at the Humana Challenge on Sunday, Mickelson complained about his onerous tax rate, suggesting he was paying more than his fair share and even hinting that he might leave his home state of California. The comments struck many as tone-deaf in light of the weak U.S. economy and the fact that, according to Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50, Mickelson's annual income is about $60.7 million. His on-course earnings and endorsements have eclipsed $50 million for 10 straight years.
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As negative reaction flooded in, Mickelson apologized in a statement. He was expected to veer away from the matter in his press conference the day before the start of his hometown tournament, which he has won three times. Instead, he sat at the dais and addressed every question amid what he described as a "media uproar." Not surprisingly, almost every question was about his tax comments.
"It was insensitive to talk about it publicly," he said, "to those people who are not able to find a job, that are struggling paycheck-to-paycheck. I think it was insensitive to discuss it in that forum, so that's why I issued a statement, because I shouldn't have brought it up at all, and I didn't want to wait until today."
The kerfuffle over Mickelson's tax comments had been brewing ever since last week, and Tiger Woods smiled when he was asked about it earlier this week.
"Well, I moved out of here back in '96 for that reason," said Woods, who is also a California native. "I enjoy Florida, but I also understand what [Mickelson] was, I think, trying to say."
The San Diego Union-Tribune featured a critical column on the front page Wednesday with the headline: "Mickelson's tax talk drives a wedge between fans." The article likens Mickelson to the volatile French actor Gerard Depardieu, who cited tax reasons for recently abandoning Paris and becoming a Russian citizen.
PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem wouldn't address Mickelson's comments directly, but he couldn't resist weighing in on high taxes in general.
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"I saw a thing on the news the other day where there are like 30 states that are sending recruiters into California to convince businesses with tax incentives to move to their state," Finchem said. "I remember 20 years ago, there was an outing someplace, and Dan Rostenkowski was the chairman of the Ways and Means Committee, and he was the chief writer of tax laws in our country. He was introduced to a player — I won't name him — who lived in a Southeastern state, and he asked him, 'Why do you live there?' The player said, 'Well, I grew up here, and family,' and [Rostenkowski] said, 'Yeah, but you should live in Florida or Texas. You don't have to pay any taxes. What are you, an idiot?"
Mickelson has been a long and vocal supporter of California. He appeared in a 2009 television spot with, among others, David Beckham, Rob Lowe and then-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, to promote the virtues of living in the state.
"I love it here," Mickelson said. "I grew up in San Diego. And even though I went to college in Arizona, I dreamed of moving back here because it's beautiful. My family's here. Amy's family is here. Our kids' grandparents are here."
Mickelson flirted with becoming an owner of the San Diego Padres last year but reconsidered shortly after last November's election, when California's state income taxes for people earning $1 million or more rose to 13.3 percent from 10.3 percent. Americans in the top federal tax bracket, which includes Mickelson, will also pay more taxes. Be that as it may, the 40-time PGA Tour winner steered clear of blaming politics for his decision to bow out of his ownership bid, citing a lack of total commitment. As for whether to bow out of the state entirely, he said he'll wait and see.
"I'm going to handle the situation the best we can privately," he said, "and then announce it publicly, what we're going to do, when we have a better idea."