Monday afternoon in Brookline, Massachusetts, a couple of days before he was set to tee off in his 31st U.S. Open, Phil Mickelson stood in a small media tent filled beyond capacity with reporters eager to parry with the once-reliably chatty golfer. A year ago, at the same pre–U.S. Open press conference, Mickelson was coming off a major victory in the PGA Championship and spent pretty much all of his Q&A answering technical golf-nerd questions about course contours and pin positions and the finer points of flop shots. This year, though, things went a little differently.
“What sort of welcome back are you anticipating,” asked one reporter, “from your peers who will feel betrayed by, and have lost a lot of respect for, you?” Another columnist prompted Mickelson to address bereaved families of 9/11 victims angry with him over his new ties to Saudi Arabia. And a third media member asked, about a recent high-profile career decision of Mickelson’s, “Are you at all worried that it’s actually damaging the PGA Tour, and professional golf in general?” Only one or two questions had to do with the upcoming tournament, about which Mickelson remarked: “It’s gonna be a brutal test of golf.” And while that response referenced the conditions at the Country Club, he might as well have been talking about the state of the sport.
Earlier this year, Mickelson agreed to join a brash new global golf invitational league called LIV Golf. LIV’s objective, aside from signing up big-name players like Mickelson, Sergio García, Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, and CEO Greg Norman, is to upend the sport’s staid status quo—a “hostile takeover” of the PGA Tour, one Golf Network analyst called it—via its revamped tournament format, less intense travel schedule, silly quirks (herald trumpets; pyrotechnics) and, above all else, absolute gobs of money.
Mickelson’s contract with LIV is in the hundreds of millions. Last weekend, when Charl Schwartzel won the tour’s inaugural tournament in London, he received a first-place purse of $4.75 million—an unheard-of amount for a single win. An excellent ESPN dispatch from the tournament described the song “For the Love of Money” blaring from the loudspeakers and noted that one player, Hennie du Plessis, won more dough in one day on the LIV circuit ($2.89 million) than he’d otherwise made over the course of his seven-year career ($900,000). One top LIV executive, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, gave a speech in London in which he promised that any golfer who could shoot an elusive “perfect score” of 54 in a LIV tournament would earn $54 million for their trouble.
The source of all that cash? A reported billion-plus-dollar commitment from the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, an arrangement that has angered and spooked fans and golfers alike—including, at one point, even Mickelson himself.
“They’re scary motherfuckers to get involved with,” Mickelson said of the Saudis last fall, during a phone call with reporter Alan Shipnuck that Mickelson later claimed had been off the record. (It wasn’t.) This past February, Shipnuck—whose unauthorized book about the golfer was released in May, and who got hassled by security guards at LIV’s inaugural event—published Mickelson’s remarks about what was at the time referred to as the Saudi Golf League. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson told Shipnuck then. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse.”
In the aftermath of these comments, Mickelson was widely criticized, both within the golf community and outside of it. He lost a number of sponsorships, then apologized, then withdrew from the Masters and from the PGA Championship, an unheard-of thing for the reigning title-holder to do outside of injury. He went into a sort of self-imposed exile during which he spoke to pretty much no one—not Tiger Woods, not DeChambeau, not Norman.
That Mickelson was embroiled in drama wasn’t surprising. He is a player who always has been, depending on whom you ask, a part-everyman, part-Machiavellian presence on the Tour, running his mouth braggadociously and/or imploding, sometimes at the same time. In contrast to some of the more unassuming personalities that tend to thrive in such a methodical sport, Mickelson has always had the ambiance of A Guy You Know—not necessarily a good guy, but a real one, funny and prickly, a person who rubs you the wrong way one minute and lights your stogie the next. He is a person who simply can’t help himself, in more ways than one.
And yet the events of the past few months haven’t been about Phil Mickelson so much as they have been about what happens when the appeal of Phil Mickelson gets leveraged and distorted by an iniquitous third party for its own benefit. In his conversation with Shipnuck, Mickelson even named the phenomenon himself: “sportswashing,” the practice of using popular athletes, like Mickelson, or events, like the World Cup or Olympics, to burnish reputations, or to distract people from interrogating a company or a country’s sins. In May, when Norman was asked how he could overlook something like the Khashoggi killing, he said, “We’ve all made mistakes.” This past weekend, after Schwartzel won the first LIV tournament, he noted that throughout his career, “Where the money comes from is not something I’ve ever looked at.” (Mickelson finished at 10 over par in his return, good for a five-way tie for 33rd place.)
In an open letter to LIV golfers, a coalition of families of September 11 victims castigated everyone involved. “Given Saudi Arabia’s role in the death of our loved ones and those injured on 9/11—your fellow Americans,” they wrote, “we are angered that you are so willing to help the Saudis cover up this history in their request for ‘respectability.’ When you partner with the Saudis, you become complicit.”
LIV isn’t the only sports operation to be partnering with the Saudis. Last fall, the Saudi Public Investment Fund purchased Newcastle United, a Premier League soccer club; Formula One is currently in the early days of a 15-year deal to race in the country. And, as a reporter drily pointed out to Mickelson at Monday’s press conference, “the U.S. government even deals with Saudi Arabia.” True! Did Mickelson feel, the reporter asked, that the criticism of him and the other golfers has been “maybe unfairly harsh?”
A year ago, this might have been the kind of question that launched an ol’ Phililoquy. Instead, Mickelson wearily bobbed and weaved out of saying much of anything, routinely returning to the same lines. (It was easy to visualize a crisis PR rep somewhere out there, mouthing the words along as he spoke.) “Everyone is entitled to their opinion,” he said. “I understand that it brings out a lot of strong emotions for a lot of people, and I respect the way they may or may not feel about it.” Respect: He said the word 16 times, by my count, in 25 minutes. He mentioned his wife, Amy, thrice. Of the 9/11 families, Mickelson said: “I have deep, deep empathy for them; I can’t emphasize that enough.” Asked about them again 20 minutes later, he said: “I can’t emphasize enough how much empathy I have for them.”
Mickelson did say a couple of things that were illuminating. “I’m going to try to keep any issues that I have again going forward behind closed doors,” he said at one point, “because it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made, voicing all of these little things.” The rub, of course, being that voicing things has long been one of Mickelson’s most compelling qualities. The other intriguing remark was only one word: “October,” the last time Mickelson said he spoke with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan—a reminder that the relationship between Mickelson and the Tour had been frosty even before his explosive comments to Shipnuck.
Mickelson believes that since he worked hard and long to earn his lifetime Tour membership, he ought to be able to use it, whether he plays on the LIV tour or not. Monahan, meanwhile, has put up a hard front, suspending 17 LIV golfers from the PGA Tour indefinitely. (None of the majors, like this weekend’s U.S. Open, are operated by the PGA Tour.) It’s kind of premature to fret, as the Golf Channel panel did following Mickelson’s press conference, that all these players will definitively never play PGA Tour golf again, especially when it’s so simple to imagine the benefits to all of some splashy reconciliation down the road. Last week, when Monahan sat down with Jim Nantz during the RBC Canadian Open to discuss everything happening in the sport, he stopped short of using the word ban.
But that dour conversation was soon blessedly brightened by some actual golf. On the tournament’s 72nd hole, Tony Finau sunk a long putt to give him sole position in second place. Then Rory McIlroy, who remains committed (and crucial) to the health of the PGA Tour, finished his round and won his 21st tournament. “One more than someone else,” McIlroy cracked cheerfully in his interview afterward. That someone else? Norman.
The U.S. Open remains the only major that Mickelson has never won, and that is very unlikely to change this year. Given his absence from golf for much of this season, a personal victory for him would likely be more along the lines of just making the cut. Mickelson noted in his press conference that he does have a favorite personal connection to the Country Club. It’s where he and the rest of the U.S. team came from behind to win the 1999 Ryder Cup, back when he was 29 years old with zero majors to his name. All these years later, Mickelson is sure to be one of the centers of attention in Brookline once more, regardless of how he ultimately finishes. All those misty memories of Mickelson’s greatest golf moments are hard to forget, after all—in much the same way that his controversial role in the sport’s fuzzy future is increasingly impossible to ignore.