SAN DIEGO — Phil Mickelson is talking more about how much he pays in taxes than how many fairways he hits off the tee.
Mickelson, regarded as the “People’s Choice” for his connection with fans, put his popularity on the line with polarizing comments about how much he has to pay in state and federal taxes. The four-time major champion said it might lead to “drastic changes,” such as moving from his native California, and that it already caused him to pull out of the San Diego Padres’ new ownership group.
His only regret was not keeping his opinion to himself.
“Finances and taxes are a personal matter, and I should not have made my opinions on them public,” Mickelson said in a statement released Monday night. “I apologize to those I have upset or insulted, and assure you I intend not to let it happen again.”
Mickelson first made a cryptic reference to “what’s gone on the last few months politically” during a conference call two weeks ago for the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, where he won last year for his 40th career PGA Tour title. After his final round Sunday at the Humana Challenge, he was asked what he meant.
“There are going to be some drastic changes for me because I happen to be in that zone that has been targeted both federally and by the state, and it doesn’t work for me right now,” he said. “So I’m going to have to make some changes.”
Mickelson said the new federal tax rate, and California voting for Proposition 30 to increase taxes on the earnings over $250,000, contributed to total taxes that tap into more than 60 percent of his income.
Golf Digest magazine, in its annual survey of top earners in the sports, said Mickelson made just over $45 million last year on and off the golf course.
The response to Mickelson’s opinions on taxes ranged from mocking a guy who has become a multimillionaire by playing golf to support for having such a high tax rate and not being afraid to speak his mind.
A majority of PGA Tour players live in Florida and others in Texas, two states that have no state income tax. Tiger Woods grew up in Southern California and played two years at Stanford. He was a California kid when he won an unprecedented three straight U.S. Amateur titles, but when he made his professional debut in Milwaukee a week later, he was listed as being from Orlando, Fla.
“I moved out of here back in ‘96 for that reason,” Woods said Tuesday.
“I enjoy Florida, but also I understand what he was — I think — trying to say,” Woods said of the Mickelson comments. “I think he’ll probably explain it better and in a little more detail.”
Mickelson deflected questions at the Humana Challenge by saying he would prefer to elaborate at his news conference at Torrey Pines.
That couldn’t wait.
“I know I have my usual pre-tournament press conference scheduled this week but I felt I needed to address the comments I made following the Humana Challenge now,” Mickelson said in his statement. “I absolutely love what I do. I love and appreciate the game of golf and the people who surround it. I’m as motivated as I’ve ever been to work on my game, to compete and to win championships.
“Right now, I’m like many Americans who are trying to understand the new tax laws. I’ve been learning a lot over the last few months and talking with people who are trying to help me make intelligent and informed decisions. I certainly don’t have a definitive plan at this time, but like everyone else I want to make decisions that are best for my future and my family.”
Mickelson’s news conference Wednesday will come after his pro-am round in the Farmers Insurance Open, a tournament he first won 20 years ago.
“He definitely showed a lack of sympathy for the plight of a lot of people, unemployed and all that sort of stuff,” Geoff Ogilvy said. “But everything is relative. He’s verbalized when he’s thinking, and you shouldn’t get in trouble for verbalizing what you’re thinking.”
Texas Gov. Rick Perry even weighed in with this tweet: “Hey Phil….Texas is home to liberty and low taxes…we would love to have you as well!!”
Mickelson is among the most famous athletes to come out of San Diego. He went to school at Arizona State and lived in Scottsdale, Ariz., for the first decade of his career until moving back home to Rancho Santa Fe.
He was part of the group that bought the Padres, saying that it would be a “significant investment” for him but that he saw it as a great opportunity to get involved in his hometown. Asked if the tax changes were why he withdrew, Mickelson said, “Absolutely.”
Mickelson has earned just under $70 million in PGA Tour earnings for his career, which doesn’t include corporate endorsements (Callaway, Barclays, Rolex) or his golf course design company, which is thriving in China.
In November, California voters approved Proposition 30, the first statewide tax increase since 2004. It raises the rate on earnings over $250,000 for seven years.
“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 is 62, 63 percent,” Mickelson had said. “So I’ve got to make some decisions on what I’m going to do.”
The reaction to Mickelson’s comments from the California legislature split along party lines, with Republicans saying they expect more high-earners to follow and Democrats saying multimillionaires can afford to pay more.
“You know, it’s sad,” said Assembly Minority Leader Connie Conway, R-Tulare. “And I think it’ll be the first of many.”
Democrats said there is no evidence in the U.S. or California of mass departures in the wake of higher taxes on the wealthy. State Assemblyman Roger Dickinson, D-Sacramento, called Mickelson “the exception rather than the rule.”
This is not the first time Mickelson’s opinions have brought him attention. Ten years ago, he came to Torrey Pines and apologized for Woods for saying in magazine article that the world’s No. 1 player was using inferior equipment.
These comments on paying taxes were sure to resonate with far more people.
Ogilvy recently moved from San Diego County to Scottsdale, though his reason was more about golf than taxes. He bought a home in Del Mar and lived with his wife and three kids for about four years, knowing there were other states he could live with lower tax rates.
“It’s a little bit of one negative to a lot of positives,” Ogilvy said. “If the tax rate in California was the same as it was in Texas, half the tour would live here. The lifestyle is impressive. The climate is impressive. But even the ones who grow up here move away.”