Phil Mickelson’s global tour of geopolitics moved from suburban London to the front edges of these shores by midday Monday, when he stood at a lectern flanked by two plastic plants in a warm little interview tent with grilling big questions.
In advance of the U.S. Open, one of the most recognizable golfers of the era looked bearded and otherwise different — less chipper than usual, sort of distant, almost robotic — as he stayed in the cramped space for about 25 minutes and took more questions than required by the moderator. He defended in anodyne terms his decision to join Saudi Arabia’s stupendously moneyed LIV Golf. He deployed the word “respect” lavishly. He explained the attraction toward a government whose human rights record — and assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — he noted months ago.
“I think that there’s an obvious incredible financial commitment,” he said, “but more than that — for all the players involved and everyone involved — but more than that, there are other factors that, with fewer tournaments, it allows me to have more balance in my life. It allows me to do things that are off the golf course I’ve always wanted to do. I find that as I prioritize those that are important to me, people that are important to me going forward, this allows me to have more time with them, be more present, and share more life experiences outside of golf.”
He said he did not know how his career might go from here, now that he has forgone a certain future as a beloved geezer golfer in the form of Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer. “I think it’s been pretty public that I’m suspended [from the PGA Tour] along with a bunch of other players, so it would be only speculative going forward,” he said. “I am going to play the LIV events. I am going to play the British Open, but anything other than that would be pure speculation. I don’t know how all this is going to play out.”
As for wishes, he would like to play both tours if possible: “I’ve worked hard to earn a lifetime membership,” he said. “I’ve worked hard to give back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf through my 30-plus years of professional golf, and I’ve earned that lifetime membership, so I believe that it should be my choice.”
The PGA Tour suspended or accepted the resignations of players who have moved to the LIV circuit, a version of golf that features 54-hole events and spares competitors the hard-world indignity of cuts. The defecting players so far include Dustin Johnson, the highest-ranked at No. 16, and major winners Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Graeme McDowell, and Charl Schwartzel. Schwartzel won the first LIV event over the weekend and received $4 million — $1.3 million more than top-ranked Scottie Scheffler received for winning the Masters in April.
Mickelson, who criticized the PGA Tour for “obnoxious greed” to Golf Digest in February from Saudi Arabia, said he had had “strong opinions and ideas, let’s say, regarding most of the governing bodies, and I’ve done a poor job of conveying the the the that. I’ve made it public, and that’s been a mistake. That’s one of the mistakes I’ve been making, and try to going forward be a lot more thoughtful with my words and actions and try to keep a lot of these things behind closed doors.”
The word “respect” surfaced a dozen or so times in his remarks. It applied to fans: “I respect and understand their opinions, and I understand that they have strong feelings and strong emotions regarding this choice.” It applied to former colleagues on the PGA Tour: “I have the utmost respect for the players on the PGA Tour. … I think that I respect if they disagree, but at this time this is the right decision.” It applied to former colleague Rory McIlroy, who won the Canadian Open on Sunday: “I certainly respect him. I respect his ideas. I respect all the players that choose to stay on the PGA Tour.”
A 51-year-old veteran of three decades of fielding questions critiqued questions, especially when questioners asked plural questions. At one point: “I don’t like it when you keep asking multiple questions.” To a question about what he might have done to “grow the game,” in his words, at LIV Golf’s kickoff event outside London, he said, “Every day is not about what did I do to grow the game.” (He then mentioned that children attended the event.) Amid a question about the participation of Saudi citizens in the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and a public letter from a widow of the attacks condemning the golfers who defected, Mickelson said: “I’ve read all that. Is there a question in there?”
He did answer: “I would say to the [Terry] Strada family, I would say to everyone that has lost loved ones, lost friends on 9/11, that I have deep, deep empathy for them. I can’t emphasize that enough. I have the deepest sympathy and empathy for them.” Terry Strada released another statement Monday afternoon, saying “Phil knows exactly what he’s doing, and he and his fellow LIV golfers should be ashamed.”
Mickelson spoke as a different character ahead of his 116th major championship than he had at any of the first 115, at “this incredible championship that has eluded me” — he paused — “for my whole career.” He spoke of his four-month turn as a recluse after his comments about the Saudi backers of LIV Golf and his subsequent apology, and he said: “I also continued to work on some areas that I’m deficient in my life. I mean, the obvious one is gambling. I’ve been working on that for years, and I’m very happy with where I’m at on that, but I’ll have to continue to work on that the rest of my life.” And he spoke at the only major championship to elude him despite a graphic history of contention, at a course on which he played in 1999 on the U.S. Ryder Cup team that scored a dramatic comeback win.
“I think the Boston crowds are some of the best in sports,” he said, “and I think that they have given me a lot of support, and I’m very appreciative of that over the years. I think that their excitement and energy is what creates such a great atmosphere, so whether it’s positive or negative towards me directly, I think it’s going to provide an incredible atmosphere to hold this championship.”
As he finished, he went behind the tent in the warm sun with a police officer nearby, stopped for a gulp of a drink, accepted a well-wish from a woman behind the tent, and boarded the second of two carts, turning to a crowd behind him and saying, “Hey, guys, have a good week.”