KING ABDULLAH ECONOMIC CITY, Saudi Arabia – The beginning of the end of Phil Mickelson’s PGA Tour career could probably be traced to right here at Royal Greens Golf and Country Club. It undoubtedly played a role.
Eight months later, Mickelson did not hold back during a news conference in advance of the LIV Golf Invitational Jeddah. While he had generally been positive in previous months about the PGA Tour and LIV Golf coexisting at the top of the pro game, he said Thursday, “I see LIV Golf trending upwards and I see the PGA Tour trending downwards.”
A lifetime member of the PGA Tour who has 45 wins and is in the World Golf Hall of Fame, Mickelson has clearly chosen his path.
It is quite possible that the last regular event he will ever play on the PGA Tour was his hometown Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines, where in late January he missed the cut.
As he had done each of the previous two years, he flew on a chartered jet to Jeddah to participate in the Saudi International, a tournament run by Golf Saudi and where the storylines were all about the drama surrounding the potential new rival called LIV Golf.
It would obviously be difficult to envision what went down in the aftermath, with Mickelson noting the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed” that week during a Golf Digest interview; a book excerpt was published a few weeks later in which Mickelson went even further, admitting that using the Saudi-backed league as leverage was worth it if it meant changes to the PGA Tour.
Mickelson soon after took a leave from the game, missed two major championships, was suspended by the PGA Tour, and then emerged as one of LIV Golf’s most prominent signees.
Now, seven tournaments into the LIV Golf Invitational Series and in the home country of the entity that is backing the entire enterprise, Mickelson on Thursday was asked if he could see back then what is taking place now. He didn’t hold back.
“It evolved a lot and it will continue to evolve over time; there were a lot of opportunities that were left open for somebody to come in and do this,” said Mickelson, who begins playing in the 54-hole event on Friday.
“For a long, long time, my 30 years on the PGA Tour, pretty much all the best players played on the PGA Tour. At least the last 20 years. That will never be the case again. I think going forward, you have to choose a side. You have to choose what side do you think is going to be successful.
“And I firmly believe that I’m on the winning side of how things are going to evolve and shape in the coming years for professional golf.”
Mickelson, 52, has endured considerable criticism for his move to LIV Golf. He came back at the first event in June to heavy questioning about LIV Golf’s backing by the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia and numerous questions about the country’s motive and human rights violations. Those questions persisted the following week at the US Open.
The winner of six major championships—he became the oldest winner of any major when he won the PGA Championship last year—Mickelson was suddenly seeing his credibility questioned and his long playing career put in the background.
Mickelson has forged on. He again suggested that LIV Golf and the PGA Tour talk.
“We play against a lot of the best players in the world on LIV and there are a lot of the best players in the world on the PGA Tour,” he said. “And until both sides sit down and have a conversation and work something out, both sides are going to continue to change and evolve.
“And I see LIV Golf trending upwards, I see the PGA Tour trending downwards and I love the side that I’m on. And I love how I feel. I love how I’m reinvigorated and excited to play golf and compete. I love the experience. I love the way they treat us.
“I love the way they involve us and listen to us in decisions. I mean it’s so inclusive, it’s so fluid that things LIV Golf is leading. Whether it’s shorts, whether it’s other aspects of professional golf that are going to change and evolve, those positions will be led by LIV.”
LIV Golf has seen Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Cam Smith, Sergio Garcia, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charles Schwartzel and Bubba Watson—all past major winners—make the jump.
But it has struggled to gain an audience via streaming and without a television rights deal, has played to modest galleries and been chided for its 54-hole event shotgun starts with only 48 players while it lobbies for Official World Golf Ranking points.
And yet, in the aftermath of Mickelson’s reported comments in February, LIV Golf appeared in trouble. Players who committed behind the scenes backed out. Rory McIlroy, a proponent of the PGA Tour, declared it “dead in the water.” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan at the Players Championship said the Tour was “moving on.”
A week later, LIV Golf announced a limited eight-tournament invitational schedule for 2022. By the time of its second event outside of Portland in late June, it had plans to launch its league next year and play a 14-tournament schedule. Things moved fast.
“I’m not surprised, no. I believe in the passion—look, the game of golf is very lucky to have the PIF invest in the game. The sport of the game of golf is being influxed with billions of dollars now. And the ability to go global and make golf a truly global sport is really beneficial for the game,” Mickelson said.
“Now, the United States and the UK are not favorable to this. But everywhere outside of the world LIV Golf is loved. And eventually they come around and they will be accepting of it. But everywhere else in the world, the ability to move these tournaments throughout the world—and I’ve spoken with people who have had dealings that have not been positive with the Tour and have had nothing but positive experiences with LIV.
“It opens up opportunities to move professional golf throughout the world in other countries and grow the game internationally.
“Now, again, outside a few countries, the United States and the UK, where it’s very negatively viewed currently, that has been changing and evolving already and in time in a few years it will be not only accepted but appreciated, the involvement and the influx of capital into this sport and what it’s doing.”
LIV Golf is playing three of its eight events outside the US this year, with plans for at least six of its tournaments to be conducted internationally in 2023.