Hometown hero Phil Mickelson has always been a big draw at the WM Phoenix Open in Scottsdale in February. But those days may be over: Lefty and 16 other PGA Tour players have been suspended for their involvement with the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series.
Tour commissioner Jay Monahan announced the decision Thursday after the 17 players teed off in a new London tournament that’s part of the upstart series.
“Their participation in the Saudi Golf League/LIV Golf event is in violation of our Tournament Regulations,” Monahan said in a statement, noting the golfers were not granted event or media rights releases.
Mickelson, who’s always a big draw at the WM Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, announced his commitment to play in London Monday on social media and stated that he had not resigned his PGA membership and still hoped to be part of the tour.
Alan Shipnuck, who is writing a biography of Mickelson, reported in February that the ASU graduate made inflammatory comments regarding both the LIV and PGA Tour in February, stating the PGA Tour is full of “obnoxious greed” and calling the Saudis “scary.”
Shortly after, Mickelson took a leave of absence from the PGA Tour, missing the U.S. Open and the Masters for the first time in decades.
“We know they killed (Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal) Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Shipnuck said Mickelson told him over the phone. “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.
“They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse. As nice a guy as (Monahan) comes across as, unless you have leverage, he won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I’m not sure I even want (the LIV) to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the (PGA) Tour.”
After the comments surfaced, Callaway, Workday, KPMG and Heineken dropped their sponsorship of the 45-time PGA Tour winner. Rory McIlroy, Tiger Woods and other notable players defended the tour and challenged Mickelson’s comments.
Before winning six majors on the PGA Tour, Mickelson was “arguably the greatest college golfer ever,” according to the PGA. During his four years at Arizona State (1988-92), he won 16 of 51 tournaments entered, won three NCAA championships and was a First-Team All-American all four years.
Mickelson has made 30 appearances at the WM Phoenix Open, winning three times – tied for most all-time, according to Golfweek. His last victory in Scottsdale was in 2013, and he hasn’t played in the event since he missed the cut in 2019.
Officials with the open could not be reached for comment.
Mickelson is headlining the field for the inaugural LIV event in London. The LIV International Golf League, founded by former PGA Tour player Greg Norman, intends to challenge the reign of the PGA Tour.
What is the LIV International Golf Series?
The LIV Golf Series is a 12-team, 48-man field, shotgun-start-style tournament funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, which has pledged $250 million in prize money. The LIV has claimed its goal is to “holistically improve the health of professional golf on a truly global scale and support existing stakeholders to help unlock the sports’ (sic) untapped potential.”
Although the league could reshape golf into faster paced, more-engaging play, there are ethical dilemmas with the Saudi-funded league.
The chairman of the Public Investment Fund is Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who authorized the death of Khashoggi in Turkey in 2018, according to a U.S. intelligence report.
“This entire golf league is absolutely part of a sport washing,” said Heather Dichter, a De Montfort University Leicester professor with expertise in international sports and diplomacy. “This is another example of not only Saudi Arabia, but quite a few countries trying to use their support and sponsorship and their financial strength to make people think positively of that country and to hopefully forget those human rights violations.”
Professional golfers can choose where they play and with which organizations, unlike the FIFA World Cup or Olympics, where an international committee selects the host sites. With the LIV, Dichter said, “the athletes are choosing to play in it and knowing where the money is coming from and who’s organizing it.”
Critics have said the athletes are setting morals and ethics aside for money.
Over the course of Mickelson’s 30-year PGA career, he has accumulated $94,955,060 through tour wins – excluding sponsorships and deals. That’s second only to Tiger Woods ($120,895,206). Dustin Johnson, who also was banned by the PGA, has the third most at $74,276,710. LIV contract details have not been released, but there is speculation that Mickelson and Johnson’s deals exceed $100 million.
The NHL and NFL limit the money that athletes can make, which is the root for an upstart league, Dichter said, but LIV Golf has “ridiculous contracts that we have never seen the likes of in golf before,” noting “in the long run, that’s not sustainable.”
How does this affect the PGA?
Former New York Times sports writer Karen Crouse said LIV Golf is “the first real existential threat to the PGA Tour.”
“When Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer led the charge away from a tour run by the PGA of America and created the PGA Tour, their emphasis was winning titles and majors,” Crouse said in an email. “Today’s young stars may have different motivations.”
The LIV Golf Series has wedged itself into a position like no other, and it starts with golf’s favorite color – green.
Story by Andrew Lwowski, Cronkite News