Phil Mickelson’s reputation takes hit after Saudi golf comments surface

Phil Mickelson, here playing in the Saudi International at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club in Saudi Arabia, created a firestorm after comments made about the Super Golf League, a Saudi-backed venture that’s attempting to attract golfers away from the PGA Tour with offers of large payouts. (Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – As the outlook of the professional golf world’s future swirls with each new twist and turn, a 530-word statement released recently by PGA Tour star Phil Mickelson provided the next plot development.

In it, the former Arizona State superstar and Tour fixture for 30 plus years tried to justify the actions that created the firestorm around him when he appeared to dismiss Saudi human rights abuses by supporting participation in a Saudi-backed Super Golf League.

Reaction was swift. Within two hours of the release, KPMG – who sponsored the Mickelson since 2008 – announced an end to its partnership with him. Workday and Amsel cut ties with him, and Callaway announced it would “pause” its partnership with the Tour star.

“It’s definitely odd,” three-time PGA Tour winner Max Homa, 31, told Cronkite News. “I think when you grow up you’re a Tiger (Woods) guy or a Phil guy as a kid, but as I got older you started to see what Phil has done for the game, not only for the game but in the game. …

I’m sure he regrets a couple of the things he said and the analogies that he’s made, but I really feel bad for fans that have followed him forever that might now feel like they are getting – that they have to read about someone that is their hero that is getting ripped to shreds. Phil is a good dude. Hopefully, he can fix this.”

Mickelson recently announced he would be taking time off without mentioning the Tour by name.

“I know I have not been my best and desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be,” Mickelson said via Twitter.

The San Diego native has not played an event on Tour since competing in his hometown at the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. A week later, he competed in Saudi Arabia on the Asian Tour.

The Fire Pit Collective’s Alan Shipnuck, who is set to release a biography about Mickelson in May titled “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar,“ published an early excerpt from his book on Thursday as the Tour got set for its latest stop at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles. In it, Mickelson described the Saudi Arabian regime as “scary motherf—— to get involved with.”

“We know they killed (Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson told Shipnuck during a phone call in November. “They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. I’m not sure I even want (the Super Golf League) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the Tour.”

A wave of PGA Tour players reacted to the comments from the six-time major winner.

World No. 5 ranked Rory McIlroy, who has made public for nearly two years that he would not be joining the SGL, told reporters at the Genesis Invitational he thought Mickelson’s words were “naive, selfish, egotistical (and) ignorant.”

Pat Perez, another former ASU standout, questioned Lefty’s remarks.

“I don’t know what Phil is doing,” Perez told reporters at Riviera after Mickelson, for the second straight year, skipped the final event of the PGA Tour’s West Coast swing.

The Genesis Invitational featured every golfer ranked in the Top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings, a week after the top of the leaderboard at the WM Phoenix Open was filled with marquee names.

“I don’t know what he’s doing,” Perez said. “I know he’s not speaking for me and, you know, I actually really don’t care what he has to say about anything because I just don’t. He doesn’t speak for me.”

Will golf fans forgive Mickelson? In some ways, the relation between knowledge of the situation and level of forgiveness may be inverse, with those unconsumed by “Golf Twitter” blissfully unaware of what one of the game’s most iconic players has done to his reputation.

The redemption arc of Tiger Woods’ career created a storybook moment at Augusta National during the 2019 Masters. Mickelson already had a fairy-tale win of his own; his coming in May 2021 when he became the oldest major champion in golf history by winning the PGA Championship at 50. The possibility of his next redemptive opportunity coming as a future Ryder Cup captain exists after Mickelson served as vice-captain on the 2021 United States squad, which won in record-setting fashion over Europe.

Related story

“Phil’s apology was him explaining himself,” said Raymond Ellis, a golf fan and 2017 graduate of Arizona State. Ellis said he grew up watching golf and saw Mickelson play at Pebble Beach as a teenager.

“His comments came across as naive and kind of out of touch,” Ellis said. “It felt like the entire interview was just an oxymoron, because he vacillated between how bad (the Saudis) are – and rightfully so – but then he also says ‘even though that’s a huge problem, I still want their money.’ It felt very oxymoronic and it felt tone-deaf.”

Because the Tour does not announce player suspensions, it’s unclear whether Mickelson’s announced break is self-imposed or that of a suspension from PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan. In May 2021, Monahan threatened to ban those who joined a different league.

Whether Mickelson’s comments to Shipnuck have blown up the SGL for good remains to be seen, but in the days after Mickelson’s statement, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Xander Schauffele – each ranked in the top 12 in the OWGR and linked to the breakaway league in some capacity – made their own announcements reaffirming commitment to the PGA Tour.

When Mickelson returns, Ellis said, he will be rooting for him – likely alongside plenty of others – both as an ASU alum and a fan of golf.

“I 100% support him,” Ellis said. “My support is multifaceted because I respect his greatness in the game. I like watching people be great. There’s that aspect, but there’s also the sentimental aspect. I graduated from the same university that the current No. 1 golfer in the world and one of the top probably 10 golfers to have ever played the game both went to.

“There’s some sentimental connection there so I always want to see him succeed. (Mickelson’s) friendly. He’s charismatic. I’m rooting for him as a person. He’s definitely going to have my support and I want him to be the Phil that he’s always been.”

Gabe Swartz gAYb swahrts
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Gabe Swartz expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and a minor in business. Swartz, a past president of the Walter Cronkite Sports Network who writes for Devils Digest, is working for the Phoenix sports bureau.