BROOKLINE, Mass. – Phil Mickelson stuck to his script and showed restraint when put in tough spots at the U.S. Open, a big change for him. Except on Monday, he was using words instead of his golf clubs.
Still to come is the major reputed to be the toughest test in golf, the only one keeping him from joining golf's most elite group with the career Grand Slam. And this one figures to be far different from any other Mickelson has faced.
The six-time major champion is competing on American soil for the first time in more than four months, now the face of a Saudi-funded league that aims to disrupt the PGA Tour.
At risk is his popularity built up over 30 years for his wins and losses, equally memorable.
“In regards to if fans would leave or whatnot, I respect and I understand their opinions, and I understand that they have strong feelings and strong emotions regarding this choice,” Mickelson said. “And I respect that.”
He added nothing from his comments last week outside London, where Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and 15 others defied PGA Tour regulations by competing in Greg Norman's new LIV Golf series that paid Lefty a reported $200 million just for signing up.
Mickelson said while tour players have been suspended — some of them resigned before the opening tee shot last week — he hasn't ruled out playing the PGA Tour again. He said Monday that should be his decision.
“I've worked hard to earn a lifetime membership,” said Mickelson, whose six majors are part of his 45 career tour victories. “I’ve worked hard to give back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf throughout my 30-plus years of professional golf, and I’ve earned that lifetime membership, so I believe that it should be my choice.”
He was dressed in a black shirt with his personal logo — an image of him leaping on the 18th green at Augusta National with his arms in the air from winning the 2004 Masters for his first major. He still has that scruffy beard, no hat, and he took questions for 25 minutes.
But he was halting in speech at times, often looking down at his feet before answering, the words not flowing as easily as they usually do. He became irritated when he felt reporters were asking more than one question.
One was about the meaning of legacy and if his would change now that he was being funded by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund.
“I don’t like it when you keep asking multiple questions,” he replied.
As for his legacy, he said he appreciated what the PGA Tour has done for him and “I'm excited about the opportunity that LIV Golf presents for me.”
“I think that there is an obvious incredible financial commitment," he said.
Otherwise, he took a straight path.
For the legion of fans who are angry at him for taking Saudi Arabian money to play in a rival golf league, he understands emotions run high and he respects their opinions.
For the families of those who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks — all but four of the 19 hijackers were Saudi citizens — he expressed deepest empathy even as a victims' group demands Mickelson and others leave the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series.
Anything related to his future on the PGA Tour he felt would be speculation. Any changes to U.S. Open criteria was not for him to say publicly.
Mickelson earned a five-year exemption from winning the PGA Championship last year at age 50, becoming the oldest player to win a major.
PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan spoke publicly Sunday for the first time since players defected to LIV Golf. Among his arguments regarding the source of the funding, Monahan said: "I would ask any player that has left, or any player that would ever consider leaving, ‘Have you ever had to apologize for being a member of the PGA Tour?’”
Mickelson said he has not spoken to Monahan since October.
Asked if he felt he needed to apologize for being part of the Saudi-backed circuit, Mickelson declined to take the bait.
“There's a lot of things throughout the years that the PGA Tour has done that I agree with, and there’s a lot of things that I don’t agree with, and yet I’ve supported them either way,” he said.
Other opinions he had about the tour or any other governing body he said he would keep private “because it was one of the biggest mistakes I’ve made is voicing all of these little things.”
That's what started all this.
Mickelson was quoted by Golf Digest in February as referring to the “obnoxious greed” of the PGA Tour while he was in Saudi Arabia getting a seven-figure appearance fee.
Then, golf writer Alan Shipnuck published an excerpt of his biography on Mickelson that quoted him as calling the Saudis behind the new league “scary mother-(expletives)" and saying he was willing to get involved so he could get leverage to make changes on the PGA Tour.
Meanwhile, a championship that dates to 1895 begins Thursday at The Country Club, steeped in heritage as one of the five founding clubs of the USGA.
The Saudi talk has been so prevalent the U.S. Open has become an afterthought.
“You can’t go anywhere without somebody bringing it up,” Justin Thomas said. "This is the U.S. Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many storylines, and yet that seems to be what all the questions are about.
“That’s not right for the U.S. Open. That’s not right for us players,” he said. “But that’s, unfortunately, where we’re at right now.”
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