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Santa Rosa native Matt Ginella’s startup launches Phil Mickelson interview heard ʼround the world

Santa Rosa native Matt Ginella was 10 years old when he played his first round of golf — at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, on the 9-hole course inside the horse racing track.

That biographical morsel, which Ginella shared by phone from his hotel overlooking the Old Course at St. Andrews in Scotland — where he happens to be working this week — seemed appropriate, considering the circumstances.

He is the founder of a small, startup media company called the Fire Pit Collective, which released a story earlier this week that went galloping around the globe faster than even the horses on that mile-long fairgrounds track.

Even if you don’t follow golf, you’ve probably caught wind by now of Phil Mickelson’s recent interview-heard-’round-the-world. Speaking with longtime golf writer Alan Shipnuck, Mickelson managed, in one conversation, to torpedo the nascent Super Golf League, a breakaway tour being bankrolled by Saudi Arabia. By stating his willingness to look past Saudi human rights abuses — as long as it gave him leverage over the way the PGA Tour distributed money — Mickelson lost two sponsors, Amstel and KPMG. Soon after, he announced that he would be taking “time away” from golf, to “work on being the man I want to be.”

Shipnuck’s bombshell interview, an excerpt from his upcoming book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf's Most Colorful Superstar,” appeared in the Fire Pit Collective, which Ginella launched a year ago. It swiftly went viral.

“I’m getting notifications from websites that are in Italian, French, Arabic, German, Portuguese,” Shipnuck told Ginella in a podcast on the site. “This story has touched such a nerve.”

In it, the 51-year-old Mickelson, winner of six major championships, described the Saudis as “scary mother-----s” responsible for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist assassinated in 2018. But Mickelson said he would work with the Saudis anyway because it presented “a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape the PGA Tour” — comments that drew intense backlash, some of it from his golfing peers, with Rory McIlroy describing him as “naive, selfish, egotistical and ignorant.”

Mickelson contended in a statement that his remarks to Shipnuck had been off the record and were “taken out of context” — a claim the writer quickly dismissed.

“Not once in our texts or when we got on the phone did Mickelson request to go off-the-record and I never consented to it,” Shipnuck wrote on the Fire Pit Collective. “If he had asked, I would have pushed back hard, as this was obviously material I wanted for the book.”

In a conversation with Shipnuck after the story broke, Ginella told him, “You did the right thing. This is what we’ve been built to do. This is our time.”

Ginella, 50, spent half his life in sports media to get to this moment.

The youngest of five children and a 1990 graduate of Cardinal Newman High School, he toiled on a maintenance crew at the Oakmont Golf Club’s East course. He “picked” the driving range and worked behind the counter at the Fountaingrove Club.

Ginella’s uncle was friends with legendary Sports Illustrated photographer Heinz Kluetmeier, which proved a useful connection. During his undergraduate years at St. Mary’s College, Ginella worked on the sideline at 49ers games, carrying cameras for SI shooters. He parlayed that into a 1995 summer internship, which led to a full-time job at SI.

In 2007, having earned his Masters in journalism at Columbia, he jumped to Golf Digest, and spent the next 11 years trotting the globe, writing travel stories. That led to his next gig, seven years as on-air talent at the Golf Channel, where he co-hosted the “Morning Drive” program.

All that time, the media landscape was changing underfoot, and Ginella was taking notes.

He worked with “incredibly talented people,” he said, but also bore witness to “inefficiencies, and in some cases, mismanagement.”

“At the Golf Channel, for instance, we’d spend five days out on assignment, shooting and interviewing, and in the end run a 4½-minute piece.

“We’d kill the cow and only eat the filet.”

He envisioned a leaner, smarter media company.

“I really believe in this model,” he said, describing the company he founded: “You find a great story, and tell it in every way, shape and form — long, medium and short. Read, watch and listen. I look at every story as a content tree.”

The trunk of that tree for the Mickelson bombshell was Shipnuck’s excerpt, with podcasts, a follow-up “Ask Alan” section, video teasers and social media offerings, serving as branches.

The goal, said Ginella, juking back to an earlier metaphor, is to “use the whole cow.”

During his decades on the road — he often spent more than half the year traveling — Ginella dated. But his most lasting relationship, he admits, was with his career.

That ended when he met Katie Sundseth, a model and reporter for the Back9network. Ginella was smitten, and regarded as a bonus her three children from a previous marriage.

They were married in 2015. The following spring, Katie gave birth to Bandon, who is now 4½, named, of course, for the near-mystical, beloved Bandon Dunes golf resort in southern Oregon.

It was young Bandon’s wish, over the recent holidays, to visit “his” dunes, as he refers to them. So the family drove north from Del Mar, stopping in Santa Rosa to visit Matt’s extended family, including aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews and his sister, AnnMarie, who lives in Sebastopol.

“I still feel a deep connection to Santa Rosa, and I always will,” he said. “I’m very proud of where I’m from.”

Editor’s note: Two of the sources in this story, Alan Shipnuck and Matt Ginella, were former colleagues of reporter Austin Murphy at Sports Illustrated.

You can reach Staff Writer Austin Murphy at austin.murphy@pressdemocrat.com or on Twitter @ausmurph88.

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