ST. ALBANS, England (AP) — Unseen from the public for four months, Phil Mickelson is returning to golf under intense scrutiny because of where he plays and who pays him.
Mickelson is a six-time major champion, the most popular golfer this side of Tiger Woods. And now he’s been branded a ‘fool’ by a human rights group for being among 48 players who signed up for a rebel golf league backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund .
“I don’t condone human rights abuses,” Mickelson replied hesitantly, choosing his words carefully during a terse press conference on Wednesday.
Mickelson, who last year made history as the oldest major champion in golf’s 161-year history, and Dustin Johnson are the main faces of the LIV Golf Invitational Series, the biggest threat to the PGA Tower since its creation in 1969.
As well as disrupting the royal and ancient game, it has forced Mickelson and others to weigh the value of taking more money than they’ve earned in their careers against the kingdom’s notorious record of of human rights.
The money offered by LIV Golf is irresistible, especially for players like Mickelson, 51, in the twilight of their careers. Signing bonuses have been reported as high as $150 million for Johnson, even more for Mickelson.
The Washington Post quoted Greg Norman, who oversees the circuit, as saying Woods turned down an offer described as “high nine figures.”
There are $25 million in prizes at each event – more than the $20 million for the PGA Tour’s flagship event – with the winner paying out $4 million and the last player winning $120,000. The first event on the circuit begins Thursday at the Centurion Golf Club near London.
It simply forces players to potentially jeopardize their future participation in major tournaments like the Masters and the Ryder Cup, while neglecting the flow of wealth from the Public Investment Fund and facing a torrent of questions about acceptance. money from Saudi Arabia, which has faced a global crisis. outcry over the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and other human rights abuses. The kingdom has denied any involvement in Khashoggi’s death.
It was Mickelson who called the Saudis a “scary mother-(expletive)” in comments reported in February, citing the killing of Khashoggi at the kingdom’s consulate in Istanbul.
“I did and said and did a lot of things that I regret, and I’m sorry for that and for the hurt it caused a lot of people,” he said. “I’m certainly aware of what happened with Jamal Khashoggi, and I think it’s terrible. I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history.
What is unclear is how LIV Golf can help improve Saudi Arabia beyond improving its image, although there is little evidence of the country’s support for the series around the Centurion Club. in St. Albans.
“I understand that people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision,” Mickelson said when asked to expand on his apology, “and I can understand that.”
Human rights activists see players as engaging in the process they call “sportswashing” – helping a country improve its image by hosting events with high-profile athletes.
“Saudi Arabia has become more repressive in recent years, not less,” said Sacha Deshmukh, chief executive of Amnesty International UK. “Human rights defenders and peaceful critics have been locked up, torture in prisons is rife and mass executions have shocked the world. Rather than acting like the willing minions of the Saudi sportswash, we’d like to see golfers at the LIV Golf Invitational speak out against human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia.
The 16 golfers who will face the media outside London – guided by press conference co-host and former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer – faced few questions about the competition itself. The 54-hole tournament has no cut and shotgun tee, which means everyone starts at the same time on a different hole. No other tournament in the world does this.
The name of the LIV series – which rhymes with “give” – derives its name from the Roman numerals for 54.
Top-ranked alum Lee Westwood had no qualms about acknowledging cash incentives to join the show.
“It’s my 29th season,” said the 49-year-old Englishman. “If there’s a pay rise, then at my age I’d have to be stupid not to take it, or certainly take a look at it and not take it.”
It was also won by fellow 46-year-old Ian Poulter, who is expected to improve quickly on the $28 million earned in career prize money.
“It’s a huge amount of money,” Poulter said of LIV, “but it’s a great platform to be able to build the game of golf and give back at the same time.”
Only one of the eight events takes place in Saudi Arabia, in Jeddah in October. Five tournaments are scheduled in the United States, from July 1-3 near Portland, Oregon. Two are on courses owned by former President Donald Trump. It poses a direct challenge to the PGA Tour because its regulations do not allow any release for tournaments held in North America.
Mickelson resisted quitting the PGA Tour, unlike two-time major winner Dustin Johnson who resigned his membership.
Graeme McDowell, the 2010 US Open champion who made the winning Ryder Cup putt the same year, is aware of the potential disciplinary consequences of leaving to compete on the LIV Tour without severing ties with the PGA.
“Why as a player would I want to get involved in some sort of legal situation with one of the biggest tours in the world?” McDowell said.
The PGA Tour said a member who plays on the LIV series would face disciplinary action for not granting a release. He did not specify what that would be, although commissioner Jay Monahan told a players meeting earlier this year that they would be disbarred.
Players joining LIV hope that the PGA Tour, as well as the European Tour, will allow players to compete wherever they want and that LIV will become just another tour that counts for ranking points feeding the majors.
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Rob Harris, The Associated Press