Phil Mickelson steps back on tax talk

SAN DIEGO -- To explain his blunder at publicly airing his personal views on taxes, Phil Mickelson very skillfully combined the pathos of political humor with one of his biggest mental errors as a player.

"This reminds me a lot of Winged Foot in 2006, where I hit a drive way left off the tents," Mickelson said Wednesday after his pro-am here at the Farmers Insurance Open. "So this happened to be way right, but way off the tents."

Mickelson apologized again to those people that are unemployed or living paycheck to paycheck who might have been offended by his comments. But he didn't apologize for the substance of his statements that came on Sunday at the Humana Challenge where the 42-year-old, 40-time PGA Tour winner said that his present tax situation was forcing him to consider some "drastic changes."

Mickelson might have a very myopic view of his tax situation. He is a fabulously wealthy professional athlete during a time when there are over 12 million unemployed people in America. No amount of taxes that he will pay over his lifetime is likely to threaten his standard of living.

But he has every right to air his grievances. People of all income levels feel the pinch of taxes. Everyone wants to keep a greater share of their hard-earned wages.

On Wednesday, Mickelson said that he shouldn't have taken advantage of his forum as a professional golfer to ignite change over tax issues. But athletes and entertainers are precisely the people needed to advocate change. The common person is often more convinced by sports heroes than by politicians.

Pressed on this, Mickelson said that he wasn't prepared to be the face of tax reform. Yet retreating to private conversations with your accountants, lawyers and family members isn't the right course to solving this age-old problem.

High taxes aren't going away and the rich like Mickelson are likely in the near future to pay a greater share than the poor and middle class. He might not become a Grover Norquist, but he could emerge as an important voice in the dialogue.

Mickelson, who Forbes estimated to have made nearly $48 million in 2012, had spent more than an hour in the player's parking lot at Torrey Pines Golf Course with his public relations man, T.R. Reinman, gathering his thoughts about the barrage of questions likely to come in a news conference about the brewing controversy over his remarks.

All of sudden, he had gotten caught up in a very divisive national conversation. He was at once a villain and a hero, depending on your stance on the matter.

Mickelson's initial statements on taxes came on Sunday, the eve of President Barack Obama's second inauguration. Taxes have been a volatile subject throughout Obama's first four years in office, and are likely to be through the end of his second term in 2016.

California, where Lefty lives in the San Diego area, rates as a historically high-tax state. Proposition 30, which California voters passed in November, raised the state income tax for millionaires like Mickelson from 10.3 percent to 13.3 percent, retroactive to 2012. According to a USA Today report for the year 2010, California had the fourth-highest tax burden in the country.

Mickelson claims his tax rate is upwards of 63 percent, but several accountants have contested that number. Still, he pays his fair share.

If Mickelson wants to substantially lower the share of taxes he pays, he can relocate his family to golf course-barren states like Alaska and South Dakota or move to Florida or Arizona, which are plentiful in tour pros and golf courses.

But Mickelson loves California. Most of his family lives here. Yet on Wednesday he said he wouldn't rule out changing zip codes to lower his taxes.

"We have talked and will continue to talk to the best tax advisors and what have you," said Mickelson, who is sponsored by KPMG, a global audit, tax and advisory firm. "I love [California]. I grew up here. ... and I'm certainly concerned for it."

Mickelson's immediate plans are to win his fourth Farmers Insurance Open. He's committed to not letting this distraction hurt his game.

"I've said some stupid things in the past that have caused a media uproar before," he said. "It's a part of my life, and I'll deal with it.

"One of the things I pride myself on is whatever it is I'm dealing with in my personal life, once I get inside the ropes, I need to be able ... to focus on shooting a low score."

In Mickelson's world, low scores don't always equal low taxes, but it's a part of the costs of being wildly successful.