HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England — The familiar smile was there, but when he removed the aviator sunglasses, Phil Mickelson’s eyes betrayed an understandable anxiety as he took his seat. On the eve of the first edition of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, and for the first time since February, the six-time major champion was facing the media and having to publicly explain/justify/clarify the last four months of his life.
On stage with the other members of his HY Flyers GC team this week—Justin Harding, Chase Koepka and TK Chantananuwat—questions for the unshaven Mickelson not surprisingly dominated the proceedings. During the 28-minute conference, the others answered just one question after the opening remarks prompted by a member of the LIV media team.
In what was inevitably a wide-ranging discussion, a few things popped up regularly. On four occasions, Mickelson underlined the fact that he “does not condone human-rights violations.” In reference to his life going forward, he uttered the word “balance” seven times. Speaking slowly and carefully, Mickelson also made it clear he wasn’t going to discuss a couple of things. “PGA Tour issues” were out-of-bounds, as was anything related to journalist Alan Shipnuck, with whom Mickelson had shared some indiscreet and provocative views regarding LIV Golf and Saudi Arabia in general.
Still, mixed in with some understandable “mea-culping,” Mickelson—who confirmed he will play in next week’s U.S. Open—displayed hints of defiance over his decision to jump the PGA Tour ship and compete here this week without a release from the circuit where he has competed for more than three decades.
“I’ve said and done things I regret,” he began. “I’m sorry for that and for the hurt that it has caused a lot of people. I don’t condone human-rights violations. No one here does. I’m certainly aware of what happened with [murdered journalist] Jamal Khashoggi. I think it is terrible. I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done through history. I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good as well. I’m excited about this opportunity. That’s why I’m here.
“I’ve really enjoyed my time on the PGA Tour,” he continued. “I’ve had some incredible experiences, some great memories. And I have strong opinions on things that could and should be a lot better. One of the mistakes I’ve made is voicing those publicly. So I will really make an effort to keep those conversations behind closed doors going forward. That’s the way to be most efficient and get the most out of it.”
Inevitably, just what he has been up to during the last four months of his non-golf life was raised. As one player put it, Mickelson went “dark” during a time when he may or may not have been serving a suspension from the PGA Tour. Which is one of the subjects Phil made it clear he wasn’t going to touch.
“If I were to confirm or deny or speak on that issue at all, I would be speaking publicly on a PGA Tour matter,” he said, “which I choose not to do at this time.”
Likewise, Mickelson was giving nothing away when pressed on just how much money—$200 million has been reported—he is being paid to be the on-course face of LIV Golf.
“I believe that contract agreements should be private,” he said. “It doesn’t seem to be the case. But it should be.”
On a more positive note, Mickelson was effusive on the subject of the sort of break from the game he had not enjoyed in more than three decades.
“I have had an awesome time,” he claimed. “I’ve had an opportunity to spend time with my wife [Amy] and travel to parts of the world. We spent time skiing at a place we have in Montana. We hiked in Sedona. What a beautiful place that is. I’ve had time to continue some of the therapy in areas of my life that have been deficient. It’s given me time to reflect on what I want to do going forward and what is best for me. And best for the people I care about.
“I went to my nephew’s little league games,” he continued. “I haven’t had a chance to do that my whole life. I went to my niece’s lacrosse games. I haven’t had a chance to do that either. This is an opportunity for me to still have golf in my life, but also have a balance where I can be more present. I can be more engaged with the people I really care about. That is why, when I think about being a part of LIV Golf, I feel so good about it.”
Ah, but what about the things he missed while he was taking in the view from various bleachers around San Diego? In particular the Masters and the PGA Championship title he could have been defending at Southern Hills last month?
“Every day of the Masters, I skied in the morning,” he revealed. “I watched the tournament afterwards. I enjoyed watching it. Scottie Scheffler put on an amazing performance. I found myself missing the Masters but not wanting to be there. I hadn’t played. I hadn’t touched a club. I wasn’t in a position to be competitive. But I will always love that tournament. If I’m not there, I will always miss it. But I didn’t have a desire to be there.
“As for the PGA, it was made clear to me through extensive conversations that I was able to play if I wanted to,” he continued. “I wasn’t ready to play or compete. I hadn’t practiced. I’d played a couple of rounds. But I wasn’t sharp. I didn’t feel like I was ready. But I had the option to play if I chose to. I just chose not to. Just like the Masters, I enjoyed watching it. But while I missed being there, I had no desire to be there.”
But, as ever with the mercurial Mickelson, therein lies a contradiction. The life “balance” he so craves ideally presumes at least a limited schedule on a PGA Tour he still insists he wants as part of his life. Then there is the possibility of a Ryder Cup captaincy—another thing on his wish list—which would also mean time away from all the things he holds so dear. Cue those hints of defiance.
“I have been a part of the tour for over 30 years,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of incredible memories and experiences. Tournaments I’ve won and been a part of. Tournaments I’ve lost and been a part of. I’ve gained a lot from the PGA Tour. I’m grateful for that. I’m grateful for everything the PGA Tour has provided for me and my family. I’ve also worked really hard to contribute and build value to the tour during my time there. I worked really hard to earn a lifetime exemption. I don’t want to give that up. I don’t believe I should have to.”
“The Ryder Cup has provided me so many special memories, relationships and friendships,” Mickelson said. “They have transcended and lasted a career. I’m hopeful to be a part of the Ryder Cup going forward. But that is not the reason for me to maintain my PGA Tour membership. I’ve earned that. I believe all players should have the right to play whenever and wherever they want, which is consistent with being an independent contractor.”
There was time, too, for a question on Mickelson’s legendary and well-documented gambling. On the course, his sometimes reckless but always aggressive style of play betrayed the natural instinct that saw him forced to “address” his off-course betting habit.
“I’ve been handling it [gambling] for many years now,” he said. “We’re talking about something that is almost a decade ago. My family and I have been financially secure for as long as I can remember. But that was certainly going to be threatened if I didn’t address this. And I did. I’ve had hundreds of hours of therapy. I’ve worked tirelessly for many years. And I feel good about where I’m at. I’m proud of the work I’ve done I’ve addressed the issue and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.”
Speaking of which, that life will continue at The Centurion course over the next three days. Which prompted another question: Why come back now if you have been having such a great time?
“It came down to how I felt about playing again,” he said. “Amy and I were talking about the options we had. I found myself excited to play golf again when I talked about LIV Golf, the team aspect, the different format, as well as the opportunity to have a bit more balance.
“I’ve played a lot of golf over the years,” he continued. “When I finally stepped away and took a break, I realized I needed to have a better balance. I’ve said that a few times. I just needed more balance on and off the golf course. This provides me a chance to bring golf back into my life, but still do the things I’ve wanted to do off the course—traveling, spending time with people I care about. I understand the people may not agree with my decision to play LIV Golf, or my timing. I get that. But this is the right decision for me, Amy and the people I care about.”
One last thing came up. Asked to speculate on what sort of PGA Tour sanctions he might be facing after he tees-up this week and how his peers might react to him winning the U.S. Open (and so completing the career Grand Slam) next week, there was just time for a hint of Mickelson’s trademark humor.
“I’m learning from my mistakes,” he responded with a straight face. “I don’t know what is going to happen. I’ll deal with the tour privately. And I don’t know how others would receive me winning the U.S. Open. But I would be favorable with it.”
Say what you like, he’s never boring.