HARTFORD, Conn. – Chronicling the only repeat winner in the history of what is now the Travelers Championship, I got to know Phil Mickelson quite well. Before Phil returned to try for a three-peat at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell in 2003, my preview focused on his family and off-the-course activities rather than his golf.
There was the time that Phil flew his grandmother and 20 of her closest friends to Las Vegas to celebrate her 80th birthday – all expenses paid. Then there was the time that he flew a dozen friends of Arizona State coach and agent Steve Loy to Cancun, surprising Steve and his wife on their 25th anniversary.
The intriguing tales came from chats with Phil’s wife, Amy, his parents and longtime caddie Jim “Bones” Mackay and several friends. So it was sad to see one of the most popular players in the history of golf be so different, defiant and defensive Monday (June 13) during a 25-minute press conference before the 122nd U.S. Open that begins Thursday (June 16) at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.
The usually ebullient and talkative Mickelson looked uncomfortable and was in the face of constant questions about joining the Saudi-financed LIV Golf series for a reported $200 million for four years, leading to his suspension from the PGA Tour. Mickelson, sporting a moustache and light gray beard, appeared a shadow of himself in an exercise in evasion as far the human rights atrocities of the Saudis and losing several sponsors.
The most compelling moment came when Mickelson was asked about the families of 9/11 victims who wrote to him protesting his participation in the new venture, specifically a letter written by Terry Strada, whose husband was on one of the planes that flew into the World Trade Center.
“I would say to the Strada family, I would say to everyone that has lost loved ones, lost friends on 9/11 that I have deep, deep empathy for them,’’ Mickelson said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. I have the deepest of sympathy and empathy for them.’’
The location of the inquisition also had a feeling of melancholy, as Mickelson said one of the highlights of his career was being part of the United States team that mounted an unprecedented rally in the final-day singles to beat Europe in the 1999 Ryder Cup at The Country Club. His other notable achievements in New England were winning the 2001-02 Canon Greater Hartford Open at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell and the 2007 Deutsche Bank Championship at TPC Boston in Norton, Mass.
But none of that was addressed during Mickelson’s meeting with the Fourth Estate. Neither were any of his 45 PGA Tour wins, including six major championships but not the U.S. Open in which he has a record six runner-up finishes that include several disastrous finishes. Instead, Mickelson was quizzed on joining LIV Golf despite once telling a journalist that Saudi Arabians were “scary motherfu—ers” who had murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi and gay people. He said he supported the rival league because it offered an opportunity to reshape the PGA Tour, but he lost sponsors Amstel Light and KPMG.
Mickelson, who will be 52 on Thursday, stepped away from golf for four months to reflect, spend more time with his family and sort out his life after making derogatory comments about the PGA Tour. He missed the Masters and PGA Championship, which he won last year to become the oldest major championship titlist (50) in history. He returned to competition for the inaugural LIV event outside London in which he shot 69-75-76 to tie for 34th in a 48-player field and took a battering from the British tabloid press.
But now Mickelson has gone from the Pied Piper of golf after his record PGA Championship win to being an outcast and under fire on many fronts as one of 13 players who competed in the LIV event and will be in the U.S. Open’s 156-man field. The United States Golf Association said last week that it would not prohibit LIV Golf players from competing, saying it would be improper to alter its qualifying criteria. Mickelson will play the first two rounds with Shane Lowry and Louis Oosthuizen, another LIV member who finished second to Jon Rahm in the U.S. Open last year.
“I know that many of you have strong – well, many people have strong opinions, emotions about my choice to go forward with LIV Golf. I understand, and I respect that,” said Mickelson, who also understands if fans aren’t as supportive as usual this week. “I’m incredibly grateful for the PGA Tour and the many opportunities it has provided me through the years, but I’m excited about this new opportunity as well.
“LIV Golf obviously has tremendous financial reward, but fewer tournaments (eight) allow more time for my family and to share more life experiences off the golf course. I feel I’ve earned my membership after 30 years on the PGA Tour and feel it should be my choice. I have the utmost respect for the players on the PGA Tour. I respect if they disagree with me, but at this time, it’s the right direction.”
Some Golf Channel commentators begged to different during their “Live at the U.S. Open” show:
Jaime Diaz: “He sold out, and it’s not a pleasant thing to do.”
Jim Gallagher Jr.: “This is not about growing the game of golf, it’s about money.”
Brandel Chamblee: “(LIV Golfers) are trying to sell a lie, and that’s hard to do.”
The controversy is certain to carry far past the crowning of a new U.S. Open champion on Sunday and the Travelers Championship next week. The bottom line is always the bottom line, and unfortunately, golf is being fractured and damaged by this division.