“I’ve had an awesome time.”
It’s hard to know if Phil Mickelson was being sarcastic or genuine in his answer to the question of how he has spent his self-imposed exile from the game.
The six-time major champion addressed the media for almost half an hour on the eve of the inaugural LIV Golf tournament near London – his first public appearance since inflammatory remarks made by him about the Saudi Arabian bankrollers of the new tour went public.
Mickelson, 51, shared the top table with fellow competitors Chase Koepka, Justin Harding and TK Chantananuwat. With the exception of perhaps two questions, however, Mickelson was the man in the cross hairs – and understandably so.
In February, with the left-hander already at the centre of a media malestrom over his feelings towards the PGA Tour, golf writer Alan Shipnuck released comments from Mickelson in which he referred to the Saudis as “scary motherf***ers” to get involved with”.
He added that he was using LIV Golf – then casually referred to as the Saudi Golf League – to create “leverage” by which he could overhaul the PGA Tour.
The ensuing fallout prompted Mickelson to announce that he was taking a leave of absence from the game and cost him a slew of sponsors. It also resulted in him missing The Masters for the first time since 1994, as well as US PGA Championship title defence only three weeks ago.
Now, though, he’s back. And yes, he faced the music.
Wearing his own “Jumping Phil” logo on his baseball cap – KPMG were one of the aforementioned partners to drop him – Mickelson cut a somewhat chastened and, at times, awkward figure. He spoke slowly and deliberately, pausing before each answer to choose his words carefully.
Here’s a snapshot of some of the key takeaways…
• On the subject of whether or not he has or currently is serving a suspension from the PGA Tour, Mickelson declined to comment. What is for sure is that he won’t be following Dustin Johnson and Kevin Na in resigning. “I worked really hard to earn a lifetime exemption. I’ve earned that and I don’t plan on just giving that up.”
• On the point of his lifetime exemption, Mickelson is in a different position to other players and was quick to point out that he is required to play only one PGA Tour event each year to meet the conditions of his membership.
• During his hiatus from the game, Phil says he travelled with his wife Amy, underwent more than 100 hours of therapy to address his gambling addiction and used the time to “reflect on what I want to do going forward”.
FIRST LOOK: Phil Mickelson’s new bag. Gone is the Callaway staff bag; in its place, a bold new white one featuring his “Jumping Phil” logo on the side. Not clear as yet what clubs are in it. Headcovers appear to be custom logo, too. pic.twitter.com/SB7J6Uz6Du
— bunkered (@BunkeredOnline) June 8, 2022
• On the criticism he has faced from fellow players, he added: “I respect their opinions. I can empathise with their feelings and I’m appreciative to the many peers who have reached out to me and shown their support.”
• When it was put to him that LIV Golf appears to be “all about the money”, Mickelson replied: “I don’t necessarily agree with your premise… but the opportunity it provides to play, complete, play less, have a better balance on and off the golf course, it gives me a lot of positives.”
• Mickelson was asked several times for his thoughts on the Saudi Arabian involvement in this venture and, specifically, if that makes him complicit in sportswashing. “I said earlier I don’t condone human rights violations. I don’t know how I could be any more clear.”
• On a related point, he was asked if he consulted any human rights organisations prior to accepting the offer from LIV Golf. He declined to answer, saying: “I think I’ve addressed that about as thoroughly as I’m going to.”
• What did Phil do during The Masters? “I went skiing every morning.”
• On the subject of his US PGA non-defence, Mickelson said that it was made clear to him that he would be allowed to compete at Southern Hills but he chose not to because he felt his game wasn’t ready. He added: “I missed being there, but I didn’t have a desire to be there.”
• Asked to confirm whether or not he has been paid the $200million signing fee reported, Mickelson was (understandably) coy: “I feel like contract agreements should be private. But it doesn’t seemed to be that way.”
• As for the Ryder Cup, Mickelson said that he hopes to still be able to play on – and perhaps captain – a US side in the future.
• Last but by no means least, it’s important to acknowledge that he, again, apologised for the comments he made to Alan Shipnuck. “I’ve said and done a lot of things I regret. I’m sorry for that and sorry for the hurt it’s caused. I don’t condone human rights violations. Nobody here does. I’m certainly aware of what’s happened with Jamal Khashoggi and think it’s terrible.”