Alan Shipnuck (left, holding mic) asks Phil Mickelson a question at his 2022 U.S. Open press conference, which was his return to championship golf after going into exile because of Shipnuck's book excerpt. (Photo/Courtesy Shipnuck)
Alan Shipnuck (left, holding mic) asks Phil Mickelson a question at his 2022 U.S. Open press conference, which was his return to championship golf after going into exile because of Shipnuck's book excerpt. (Photo/Courtesy Shipnuck)

Bay Area sportswriter Alan Shipnuck’s new biography blows open the life of golf great Phil Mickelson

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Legendary golfer Phil Mickelson caused a firestorm in February when he publicly disparaged the Saudi government over its “horrible” human rights record. He admitted that he would be complicit in “sportswashing” by playing in the Saudis’ new LIV Golf tour, but that he agreed to do so because it represented “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

Mickelson apologized for his comments, but many of his sponsors distanced themselves from him or dropped him. He then disappeared from public view for months. Alan Shipnuck, a Jewish sportswriter from Carmel, watched with amazement as the controversy unfolded. Mickelson made his comments to Shipnuck during an interview in November for his new book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar.”

Alan Shipnuck
Alan Shipnuck

“Phil very much told me the quiet part out loud, so I was impressed because that candor is rare in professional athletes,” the former Sports Illustrated writer and author of seven other sports books told J. “I figured he would hold a press conference and talk his way out of this controversy. I thought it would be a two-day story. I never imagined it would mushroom into what it did.” (Mickelson claimed the interview was off the record, but Shipnuck countered that they had made no such agreement.)

Since the brouhaha involving Mickelson, Shipnuck, 49, has seen his profile rise in the sports world. At last month’s U.S. Open in Brookline, Massachusetts, he said he was recognized by many more golf fans than usual.

“I always go out and walk the golf course, and very occasionally in the past, maybe once per day, someone in the gallery would say something to me,” Shipnuck said. “At this U.S. Open, it was very disorienting because it was happening every hole, somewhat repeatedly. I was really taken aback.”

Growing up in Salinas, Shipnuck played baseball and golf (he was introduced to the sport by a boyfriend of his mother, Barbara). He celebrated Jewish holidays with his sister and mother, who was the first woman to serve on the Monterey County Board of Supervisors and, until her death earlier this year, the president of her local chapter of the National Council of Jewish Women. “I was immersed in the culture of Judaism, especially with my grandma and great-aunt,” he said. “They conversed in Yiddish, so it was in the air around me. We’d go every summer to stay with my grandma in Brooklyn, where we went to synagogue and to the delis.”

While covering golf wasn’t his initial interest — in high school, he wrote about football for his local paper, the Salinas Californian — it’s where he found an opportunity.

In 1991, during the summer before he enrolled at UCLA, Shipnuck worked as a “cart boy” at iconic Pebble Beach Golf Links in Monterey County. With easy access to the golf course, he became more serious about the game and crossed paths with someone who would eventually give him his first big-time opportunity in sports journalism: Mark Mulvoy, Sports Illustrated’s then managing editor.

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“For two years, I sent him letters every few months, saying something like: ‘Dear Mr. Mulvoy, I’m now covering women’s rugby for [UCLA’s student newspaper] the Daily Bruin.’ This guy ran the greatest magazine in the world and had no use for a college undergrad,” Shipnuck said. “He never responded to my letters, but I kept sending them.”

Two years later, in 1993, Shipnuck found himself back at Pebble Beach anticipating Mulvoy’s arrival. He did not pass up the opportunity to reconnect with his idol.

“Mulvoy was like, ‘Oh, you’re the little s*-ass who sent me all the letters,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, that’s me.’”

Shipnuck’s persistence paid off. Mulvoy offered him an internship in Manhattan, leading the California boy to temporarily drop out of UCLA. Interns at SI were rarely offered the chance to write stories, but Shipnuck scored a cover story about the baseball player Ken Griffey Jr.

After returning to UCLA and graduating with a degree in mass communications, Shipnuck became SI’s youngest-ever staff writer. “Me and Tiger Woods turned pro in the same year, 1996,” he said.

“Phil,” Shipnuck’s book on Mickelson, delivers juicy revelations, including new details on Mickelson’s gambling losses and split with longtime caddie, Jim “Bones” Mackay. The book also discusses Mickelson’s penchant for doing random acts of kindness.

In addition to the PGA Tour, Shipnuck now covers the LIV Golf tour (which he believes is too significant to ignore) for his media company the Fire Pit Collective, which launched last year. He is also working on a new book about this emerging chapter in professional golf and the major stakeholders, including former President Donald Trump, whose golf courses will host LIV events.

At LIV Golf’s inaugural event last month in London, Shipnuck was kicked out out of a press conference (“without cause,” he said) as LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman “looked on impassively.”

Through it all, Shipnuck said he has kept a positive attitude. “My life still consists of taking care of my kids, walking my dog, seeing friends and trying to improve my golf swing,” he said.

“Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar” by Alan Shipnuck (Simon & Schuster, 256 pages)

Gabe Fisher
Gabe Fisher

Gabe Fisher is a freelance journalist who served as interim editorial assistant at J. in 2022. Follow him on Twitter @ItsGabeFisher.