Phil Mickelson stuck to his script and showed restraint when he got into sticky situations at the US Open, a big change for him. Except for Monday, he used words instead of his golf clubs.
The major is yet to come, considered golf’s toughest test, the only one stopping him from entering golf’s most elite group with the career grand slam. And this one is unlike any other Mickelson has encountered.
The six-time major champion returns to American soil for the first time in more than four months and is now the face of a Saudi Arabia-funded league aimed at disrupting the PGA Tour.
At stake is his popularity built over 30 years for his victories and defeats that are equally memorable.
“In terms of whether the fans would go or not, I respect and understand their opinion, and I understand they have strong feelings and strong emotions about that decision,” Mickelson said. “And I respect that.”
He added none of his comments outside of London last week, where Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and 15 others defied PGA Tour regulations by participating in Greg Norman’s new LIV golf series, which Lefty reportedly paid $200 million just for signing up paid.
Mickelson said that although Tour players have been suspended — some of whom resigned before the first tee last week — he hasn’t ruled out playing on the PGA Tour again. He said on Monday that should be his decision.
“I worked hard to earn a lifetime membership,” said Mickelson, whose six majors are part of his 45 career Tour wins. “I’ve worked hard to give back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf during my 30+ years as a professional golfer and I’ve earned this lifetime membership so I believe it should be my choice.”
He wore a black shirt with his personal logo – a picture of him jumping with his arms raised on the 18th green at Augusta National after winning the Masters for his first Major in 2004. He still has that unkempt beard, no hat, and he’s been answering questions for 25 minutes.
But he paused sometimes, often glancing at his feet before answering, and the words didn’t flow as easily as usual. He became irritated when he felt reporters were asking more than one question.
One discussed the meaning of the legacy and whether his would change now that it is funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
“I don’t like it when you keep asking multiple questions,” he replied.
Regarding his legacy, he said he appreciates what the PGA Tour has done for him and “I’m excited about the opportunity that LIV Golf is giving me.”
“I think there’s obviously an incredible financial commitment,” he said.
Otherwise he took a straight path.
For the legion of fans who are angry at him for taking Saudi money to play in a competing golf league, he understands the emotions running high and he respects their opinions.
He expressed his deepest sympathy for the families of those who died in the 9/11 terrorist attacks — all but four of the 19 hijackers were Saudi nationals — even as a victim group is demanding that Mickelson and others pay those of Saudi Arabia funded LIV Golf series left.
Anything to do with his future on the PGA Tour would be speculation. He could not publicly say any changes to the US Open criteria.
Mickelson was given a five-year ban from winning the PGA Championship last year at the age of 50, becoming the oldest player to win a major.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan spoke Sunday for the first time since players defected to LIV Golf. Among his arguments regarding the source of the funding, Monahan said, “I would ask any player who has left, or any player who would ever consider leaving, ‘Did you ever have to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour are?’”
Mickelson said he hasn’t spoken to Monahan since October.
When asked if he felt he had to apologize for being part of the Saudi-backed circle, Mickelson declined to take the bait.
“There are many things that the PGA Tour has done over the years that I agree with and there are many things that I disagree with, and yet I have supported them one way or the other,” he said.
Other opinions he had about the tour or other governing bodies, he said, he would keep private “because one of the biggest mistakes I made was speaking out all these little things.”
That’s how it all started.
Mickelson was quoted by Golf Digest in February as referring to the PGA Tour’s “insufferable greed” while in Saudi Arabia and receiving a seven-figure entry fee.
Then golf author Alan Shipnuck published an excerpt from his biography on Mickelson, quoting him as calling the Saudis behind the new league a “creepy mother (expressions)” and saying he was willing to get involved so he could put pressure on them could make changes to the PGA Tour.
Meanwhile, Thursday begins a championship dating back to 1895 at the country club, steeped in tradition as one of the USGA’s five founding clubs.
So widespread has the Saudi talk been that the US Open has become an afterthought.
“You can’t go anywhere without someone bringing it up,” Justin Thomas said. “This is the US Open and this is an incredible place, a place with so much history, an incredible field, so many storylines, and yet all the questions seem to be about it.
“It’s not right for the US Open. It’s not right for us players,” he said. “Unfortunately, that’s where we are right now.”
Associated Press coverage.
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