Out of public view for four months, Phil Mickelson returns to golf under severe scrutiny because of where he’s playing and who is paying him.
Mickelson is a six-time major champion, the most popular golfer this side of Tiger Woods. And now he is being referred to as a “stooge” by a human rights group for being among 48 players who have signed up for a rebel golf league backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
“I don’t condone human rights violations,” Mickelson responded hesitatingly, choosing his words carefully at a terse news conference Wednesday.
Mickelson, who last year made history as the oldest major champion in golf’s 161-year history, and Dustin Johnson are the leading faces of the LIV Golf Invitational series, the greatest threat to the PGA Tour since it was formed in 1969.
Along with disrupting the royal and ancient game, it has forced Mickelson and others to weigh the value of taking more money than they have earned in their careers against the kingdom’s notorious record on human rights.
The cash being offered by LIV Golf is irresistible, especially for players like the 51-year-old Mickelson in the twilight of their careers. Signing bonus have been reported as high as $150 million for Johnson, even higher for Mickelson.
The Washington Post quoted Greg Norman, who oversees the circuit, as saying that Woods turned down an offer described as “high nine digits.”
There is $25 million in prize money at each event — more than the $20 million for the PGA Tour’s flagship event — with the winner banking $4 million and the last-place player earning $120,000. The circuit’s first event begins Thursday at the Centurion Golf Club near London.
It just requires players to potentially jeopardize their future participation in majors like the Masters, and in the Ryder Cup, while overlooking the riches flow from the Public Investment Fund and facing a torrent of questions about accepting cash from Saudi Arabia, which has faced a global outcry over the 2018 killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights violations. The kingdom has denied involvement in Khashoggi’s death.
It was Mickelson who called the Saudis “scary mother-(expletives)” in comments reported in February, citing Khashoggi’s murder in the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
“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. “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.”
What is not clear is how LIV Golf can help to improve Saudi Arabia beyond burnishing its image, although there is little evidence of the country’s backing for the series around the Centurion Club in St. Albans.
“I understand people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision,” Mickelson said when asked to expand on his apology, “and I can empathize with that.”
Human rights activists see the players as engaging in the process they call “sportswashing” — helping a country improve its image through staging events with renowned athletes.
“Saudi Arabia has become more repressive in recent years, not less,” said Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK. “Human rights defenders and peaceful critics have been locked up, torture in jails is rife, and mass executions have shocked the world. Rather than acting as the willing stooges of Saudi sportswashing, we’d like to see golfers at the LIV Golf Invitational speaking out about human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.”
The 16 golfers to face the media outside London — shepherded by news conference co-host and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer — have faced few questions about the competition itself. The 54-hole tournament has no cut and a shotgun start, meaning everyone starts at the same time on a different hole. No other tournament in the world does that.
The series name LIV — which rhymes with “give” — takes its name from the Roman numerals for 54.
Former top-ranked Lee Westwood had no qualms about acknowledging the cash incentives to join the series.
“This is my 29th season,” the 49-year-old Englishman said. “If there’s a pay increase, then at my age, I’d have to be stupid not to take it, or certainly have a good look at it and then not take it.”
It was also taken by 46-year-old compatriot, Ian Poulter, who stands to improve rapidly on the $28 million earned in career prize money.
“It is a vast sum of money,” Poulter said of LIV, “but it’s a great platform to be able to build the game of golf and give back at the same time.”
Only one of the eight events is in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah in October. Five tournaments are scheduled for the United States, starting July 1-3 near Portland, Oregon. Two are on courses owned by former President Donald Trump. It poses a direct challenge to the PGA Tour because its regulations do not allow for any releases for tournaments held in North America.
Mickelson has resisted quitting the PGA Tour, unlike two-time major winner Dustin Johnson who has resigned his membership.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champion who sunk the winning putt in the Ryder Cup in the same year, is aware of the potential disciplinary consequences by going off to compete on the LIV circuit while not severing ties with the PGA.
“Why as a player, would I want to get involved in some sort of legal situation with one of the greatest tours in the world?” McDowell said.
The PGA Tour has said a member who plays in the LIV series would face discipline because it did not grant releases. It has not said what that would be, though Commissioner Jay Monahan said in a player meeting earlier this year they would be disbarred.
The players joining LIV hope the PGA Tour, along with the European tour, allows players to compete where they want and that LIV becomes just another circuit that counts for ranking points feeding into the majors.