PHOENIX – To appreciate the significance of Phil Mickelson’s absence from this week’s Masters, it helps to know how the three-time champion has described the men’s first major of the year.
“It’s my favorite week of the year,” Mickelson said in 2012 during a pre-tournament interview ahead of his 18th consecutive appearance – and 19th overall – at Augusta National Golf Club, “and I just enjoy every minute of it.”
After Mickelson won his most recent green jacket, in 2010, he raved about the tournament, the site of his first major championship title in 2004.
“I love this place. I love coming here,” he said after shooting a final-round 5-under 67 to win his third green jacket. “I love Sunday at Augusta. Back in the ‘90s it was the most nerve-wracking day. Still is, but I’ve just come to love and cherish it.”
As recently as last year, Mickelson, 51, praised the tournament and the course during his week-opening news conference.
“It’s just the details of and the depth, the way this has been so well thought through,” Mickelson said. “No tournament treats their players and past champions better than this tournament right here. It just has an incredible feeling as a player when you are here and the way they take care of us, and how well run everything is.”
Fast forward to another news conference, this one on Wednesday morning, where Augusta National Golf Club chairman Fred Ridley told reporters Mickelson received an invitation to play in the 2022 tournament but opted not to participate in what would’ve been his 30th Masters.
“I would like to say we did not disinvite Phil,” Ridley said. “Phil is a three-time Masters champion and is invited in that category and many other categories; he’s the defending PGA champion.”
Ridley told reporters the former Sun Devils star notified him via text message in late February that he would not be playing in this week’s Masters.
The timing of the text is telling. On Feb. 17, Alan Shipnuck, the author of a soon-to-be published unauthorized biography of Mickelson, posted an excerpt from the book that was based on a phone conversation he had with Mickelson last November. Mickelson, who had expressed interest in a new Saudi Arabia-backed professional men’s tour, described the Saudi political regime as “scary motherf—— to get involved with.” Nonetheless, citing a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates,” Mickelson shared with Shipnuck that he and three other players had paid for attorneys to write the SGL’s operating agreement.
This issue is a divisive one. On Thursday at the Masters, Gary Player wore an all-black jumper with a Golf Saudi logo on the collar during the honorary starter’s ceremony.
Since the comments were released, Mickelson has stepped away from professional golf. The San Diego native has not played an event on the PGA Tour since an appearance in the Farmers Insurance Open in late January. A week later, he competed in Saudi Arabia on the Asian Tour.
“I know I have not been at 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 wrote on Twitter.
A Statement from Phil Mickelson pic.twitter.com/2saaXIxhpu
— Phil Mickelson (@PhilMickelson) February 22, 2022
The PGA Tour does not announce its suspensions, so it remains unclear whether Mickelson’s now months-long break is truly self-imposed or has been, if not ordered, strongly encouraged by the tour commissioner, Jay Monahan.
In May 2021, Monahan threatened to ban any Tour players who joined a different league. The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitation Series is particularly unpalatable to many people who regard it as an example of sportswashing. At last month’s Players Championship, Monahan told reporters that he hadn’t yet spoken to Mickelson, perhaps the most popular player in the sport after Tiger Woods.
Because of Mickelson’s success at Augusta National – where he won the famed green jacket in 2004, 2006 and 2010 – he’s exempt into the tournament until he’s no longer fit to compete. As recently as last May, Mickelson won the PGA Championship at Kiawah’s Ocean Course and became the oldest major championship winner in history less than a month before his 51st birthday.
“I thanked him for the courtesy in letting me know. I told him that we certainly appreciated that and, you know, told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he’d like,” Ridley said during his annual State of the Masters address. “He thanked me, and we had a very cordial exchange.”
The lack of clarity regarding Mickelson’s absence from competitive golf has left other Tour players confused. In 2020-2021, he made 20 tour starts and appeared on the PGA Champions Tour in six events, winning four of them.
“It’s definitely odd,” three-time PGA Tour winner Max Homa, 31, told Cronkite News in February. “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 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.”
The void left by Mickelson’s absence has been filled to overflowing by Tiger Woods, who is making his first official Tour start since the 2020 Masters, played in November due to COVID-19. In the 19 months since, Woods had a fifth back surgery and, in February of 2021, sustained life-threatening injuries in a single-car crash that left him bedridden for three months.
Woods, who has weathered personal controversy and a career full of injuries, has missed four of the previous eight Masters. In that time, Mickelson remained a constant, making the trip down Magnolia Lane for 29 straight years.
“I know that Phil has been a real fixture here at the Masters for many, many years. He’s been a big part of our history,” Ridley said. “I certainly and we certainly wish him the best sort of working through the issues he’s dealing with right now.”