Wearing a black cap and matching jumper, and sitting in front of a black backdrop before assembled media, it would be all too easy to presume that Phil Mickelson’s sartorial choice resembled his disposition these last few problematic months.
Though the American superstar was not as glum as his attire as he answered questions Wednesday about his involvement in the controversial LIV Golf series, he was nonetheless pensive on the eve of taking part in the world’s most lucrative golf event.
It’s been a rocky few months for Mickelson, 51, who has not played since controversial comments about the Saudi Arabian-funded events were published earlier this year by his biographer. All the attention during Wednesday’s press conference was on him.
The six-time major winner was quoted from a 2021 interview with author Alan Shipnuck for his upcoming book, “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,” as saying that he would consider joining the proposed Super League because it is a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”
Shipnuck quoted Mickelson as saying disparaging things about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and asserting that the kingdom killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi.
The LIV Golf series is backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), which is a sovereign wealth fund chaired by Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia and the man who a US intelligence report named as responsible for approving the operation that led to the 2018 murder of Khashoggi. Bin Salman has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s murder.
Mickelson said in February he would take “some time away” from golf after being criticized for his comments. He subsequently lost multiple sponsorships over the controversy and, on Monday, tweeted a statement, in which he was apologetic for his previous comments.
In his opening answer in Wednesday’s press conference, when asked about the human rights record of the country providing funding for the venture, Mickelson appeared to be remorseful.
“Well, certainly, I’ve made, said and done a lot of things that I regret, and I’m sorry for that and for the hurt that it’s caused a lot of people,” he said during what was an often tense press conference.
“I don’t condone human rights violations at all. I don’t think – nobody here does, throughout the world. I’m certainly aware of what has happened with Jamal Khashoggi, and I think it’s terrible.
“I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history, and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good for the game as well. And I’m excited about this opportunity. That’s why I’m here.”
His appearance at Centurion Club is his first on the golf course in almost four months – he missed the Masters this year for the first time in 28 years. The American, however, said he’s had an “awesome time” away from the sport, spending it skiing and with his family.
However, the topic of Saudi Arabia and sportswashing was clearly one Mickelson has had to think about over his break from golf.
The long pauses before answering the questions about the moral dilemma of playing on such a tour suggested a man carefully selecting his words.
Repeatedly, Mickelson gave a similar answer. “I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” he said again and again.
Players’ decision to agree to play on the LIV Golf series has come with a host of questions.
A major one has been whether their commitment to this new tour will affect their ability to appear on golf’s other tours – most notably, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour.
Just recently, the PGA Tour threatened “disciplinary action” for PGA Tour golfers who participate in the new Saudi-backed series.
Two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, as well as long-time PGA Tour player Kevin Na, have resigned from the PGA Tour to compete in the LIV Golf event. It means Johnson will no longer be eligible for the Ryder Cup, although the US Open announced on Wednesday that players will be able to play at the forthcoming major.
When asked about his future with the PGA Tour on Wednesday, and specifically whether he’d been banned for agreeing to join the new venture, Mickelson – who has lifetime eligibility on the PGA Tour – refused to confirm or deny, instead choosing to keep his cards close to his chest.
“I’m learning lessons,” Mickelson – who said he will play at this month’s US Open – said. “I would be speaking on a PGA Tour matter publicly, which I choose not to do at this time.
“I’ve enjoyed my time on the PGA Tour and I have strong opinions on what could and should be done a lot better, but I will make an effort to keep those conversations behind closed doors.
“I don’t want to give up (my lifetime membership of the PGA Tour). I don’t believe I should have to. I don’t know what that means for the future, but I don’t know what’s going to happen. But I’ve earned that, and I don’t plan on just giving it up.”
Although some established PGA Tour professionals have criticized players’ decision to join the new league, multi-time Tour winners Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood have chosen to describe themselves as “global golfers” and “independent contractors” respectively.
Besides the huge prize fund, one of Mickelson’s stated reasons for playing on the LIV series is to create a better balance between his family and work life.
And even his recent break, he said, made him realize how his life could be improved.
“I’ve played a lot of golf over the years, and when I finally stepped away and took a break, I realized that I needed to have a little bit, I guess, better balance; I’ve said it a few times,” he said.
“I just needed a little bit more balance on and off the golf course, and this provide me a chance to bring golf back into my life but still do the things off the course I’ve wanted to do, whether it’s traveling, spending time with people I care about.
“I went to a couple of my nephews little league games. I haven’t had a chance to do that my whole life. Went to my niece’s lacrosse games. I haven’t had a chance to do that. It’s given me opportunities, like I say, to have a better balance on and off the golf course.”
What is the LIV Golf series?
The LIV Golf series is a new tour organized by LIV Golf Investments and consists of eight events across the world, beginning in London on Thursday.
Fronted by former world No. 1 Greg Norman, the team-based series will run from June to October with the aim, it says, to “holistically improve the health of professional golf on a global scale to help unlock the sports’ untapped potential.”
PIF has pledged to award $250 million in total prize money. Each of the first seven events will have a total prize purse of $25million, with $20m split between individual players and the remaining $5m being shared between the top three teams at the end of each week.
Ahead of the first event in London, the 12 teams were announced, as well as their captain. On Tuesday, captains selected the rest of their teams in a draft format akin to the NFL and NBA drafts.
Unlike typical golfing events, London’s event is over three days not four, with the 48-man field beginning with a shotgun start – all at the same time – in the hopes of being a more engaging, action-packed style event.
Competing in a traditional stroke play format, the lowest score will be the winner.
Whereas in the first two round, the best two scores will count for each team, in the final round, the best three scores will count, with the lowest overall team score after 54 holes being named the team winner.
For the final event – a team championship – the format changes to a four-round match-play knockout tournament.