Phil Mickelson is facing the golf media in the lead-up to this weekend’s U.S. Open, and suffice it to say: it isn’t pretty. It’s not that the LIV press conferences have exactly gone easy on the defecting golfers, but the press has faced more moderation and censorship from people who have also been paid quite a bit to act as the faces of the new Saudi golf league. Here at the Country Club in Brookline, though, LIV is fair game.
The Open provides us with an inside look at the ever-widening divide in the golf world as PGA-ers and LIV-ers come together on one course. Tensions are already high at the major — with the split being the focus of just about every waking moment there, whether the golfers like it or not — and several pros have not been quiet about their opinions on the new Saudi-funded league.
Jon Rahm, a Mickelson protege, gave a speech to the press on the unappealing format and said he plays “for the love of the game” and that “money is great, but I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life.” He talked about how meaningful PGA wins are to him. Rory McIlory, the LIV’s most outspoken critic to date, said that young golfers joining the new league were “taking the easy way out” and that their tournaments “meant nothing.” Even Jordan Spieth apparently ignored Kevin Na, one of the early defectors, while on the course.
But the man reporters and fans were dying to hear from was, of course, Mickelson. Lefty, whose path to the LIV has been unsteady, to say the least, appeared uncomfortable and, at times, ashamed, as he was forced to go on the defensive about his choice to sign on with LIV for $200 million and knowingly risk a lifetime ban from PGA Tour events. His famous statement to journalist Alan Shipnuck that sent him out of the spotlight for a while made it even more of a challenge to get up there and answer these questions.
One reporter read out from a letter sent by 9/11 Families United, a group of the family members of the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi Arabians. After reading the letter and getting cut short by Phil, she asked how he would explain his decision to those families.
“I have deep, deep empathy for them,” he responded. “I can’t emphasize that enough, I have the deepest of sympathy and empathy for them.”
Terry Strada, the head of 9/11 Families United, responded to his comments in the statement below:
Mickleson was very adamant about understanding different opinions and respect, respect, respect. He may just as well have been Aretha Franklin herself standing there for how many times the word was used. It was a lot of excuses, as well — talking about work-life balance, despite the fact that he’s been allowed to set his own PGA schedule since 2002 and is required to compete in LIV events, talking about international competitions, despite the fact that he’s skipped three quarters of the PGA’ international tournaments in the last 20 years, talking about the team format, which is confusing and a clear grab at sponsorship money.
As one tour golfer told ESPN, “Instead of skating around it, just call it what it is. Just say, ‘If I take the money, I don’t care about other countries and other people, I care about my career and my family, and anyone who hasn’t been offered this kind of money can’t relate.’”
As the 51-year-old takes on his white whale, the one major he’s never been able to conquer in a long, storied, and successful career, he’s facing down his legacy — and he doesn’t like how it looks. Known for his aggressive, almost rabid competitive drive, he now looks like he’s had all the air taken out of him. A defeated once-great champion whose lifetime winnings have suffered from a gambling addiction, this is his retirement plan. I seriously doubt this is the way he wanted to go, the way he wanted to be remembered, but here he is, now perhaps wondering if this is all more trouble than it’s worth. But it is, after all, worth $200 million.