Several years ago, Phil Mickelson began wearing aviator sunglasses so frequently they started to feel like a part of his personality.
He wore them initially, he said, for medical reasons during a two-week skin treatment on his face meant to kill hidden cancer cells, a preventative therapy he hoped would heal some of the damage done after a life spent working in the sun. But Mickelson quickly realized how much he enjoyed wearing them, how much he thought they helped him on the golf course. So he wore them everywhere — during playful videos made for Twitter, during commercials, during interviews, all places he wanted to project the confidence of a man who seemed (at least on the outside) to be reveling in life as he approached his 50s.
When he entered the media center at Centurion Golf Club on Wednesday, his first public appearance in more than four months, the aviators were still there, but Mickelson pulled them off slowly as he sat down, resting them on the table next to his large tumbler of coffee. He tried to make eye contact with a few familiar faces in the room. It was a small, but seemingly deliberate gesture. He had come to a stage where he once projected arrogance in search of absolution. He was lowering his shields, at least symbolically.
“I’ve said and done a lot of things that I regret,” Mickelson said, answering questions as a part of his debut with LIV Golf, an upstart golf league that is holding its first tournament this week. “I’m sorry for that and sorry for the hurt it caused a lot of people.”
What exactly Mickelson was apologizing for, he tried to keep vague. He spoke slowly, attempting to acknowledge the validity of each inquiry, even the ones that seemed to make him uncomfortable, before pivoting to broad statements. He told stories about hiking and skiing during his time away, about spending time in Montana with his wife, Amy. He mentioned reprioritizing things. But mostly what hung in the air was his new reality. Mickelson — one of the biggest stars of the PGA Tour for the last 30 years, easily the game’s second-most popular player behind Tiger Woods — was now going to be the face of a rival golf league, one with considerable moral baggage.
“I understand people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision, and I can empathize with that,” Mickelson said. “But at this time, this is an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life going forward, and I think this is going to do a lot of good for the game.”
The press conference felt like theater at times, like watching a once-popular politician attempt to navigate his way through a scandal of his own making. There were obviously rehearsed talking points and strained smiles and several awkward pauses. But for nearly 30 minutes, Mickelson answered questions, something he hadn’t done since February.
Did he still think his LIV Golf employers — the Public Investment Fund of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia — were “scary”?
“I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said. “Nobody here does, throughout the world. I’m certainly aware of what’s happened with [Washington Post columnist] Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible.”
Was he concerned at all he was being cast as a “stooge for sportswashing?”
“As I said earlier, I don’t condone human rights violations,” Mickelson said. “I don’t know how I can be any more clear.”
Had he been suspended, or was he currently banned, by the PGA Tour?
“I choose not to speak publicly on PGA Tour issues at this time,” Mickelson said.
Was he really getting $200 million from LIV Golf to join the tour?
“I feel that contract agreements should be private,” Mickelson said. “Doesn’t seem to be the case, but it should be.”
What was his relationship with gambling going to be from now on, considering he recently called his penchant for making big wagers both “reckless” and “embarrassing”?
“I’ve been handling it for many years now,” Mickelson said. “Me and my family, we’ve been financially secure for — I can’t even remember for how long now. But it was certainly going to be threatened if I didn’t address this. And I did. I’ve had hundreds of hours of therapy and I’ve worked tirelessly for many years. I feel really good about where I’m at. And I’m proud of the work I’ve done. I’ve addressed the issue and will continue to do so for the rest of my life.”
More broadly, what the heck has he be doing the last four months?
“I’ve had an awesome time,” Mickelson said. “I’ve had a four-month break from the game that I’ve not had in over three decades. I’ve had an opportunity to spend time with my wife Amy and spend time traveling to parts of the world, spend time at a place we have in Montana skiing and hike in Sedona. It’s given me a time to continue some of the work and therapy in areas where I’m deficient in my life. It’s given me time to reflect what I want to do going forward and what’s best for me and what’s best for the people I care about.”
Mickelson said he does plan to play in next week’s U.S. Open, and only chose to miss the last two majors (including the defense of his PGA Championship) because he didn’t think his game was in good enough shape.
“It was made clear to me through extensive conversations that I was able to play if I wanted to,” Mickelson said. “I wasn’t ready to play and compete. So, I chose not to.”
It’s impossible to say, in this current moment, how Mickelson’s decision will factor into his legacy. It could be a fracture, or a footnote, or even forgotten eventually. Legacies are ultimately as malleable as they are artificial. But a new chapter of Mickelson’s story has certainly begun. Although plenty of PGA Tour players have been critical of Mickelson for his recent comments, those who opted to join him with LIV Golf seem almost protective of him.
“Obviously Phil is a huge icon in the game of golf,” said Dustin Johnson, a fellow Masters champion and LIV participant. “I don’t agree with what he said in his interviews. I think he’s come out and apologized for that a bunch. But, you know, Phil is great for LIV Golf. He’s great for this new opportunity. He brings a lot of eyes. He’s been great for the game of golf. He’s been a great ambassador. I’ve known Phil for a long time. Played tons of golf with him, and I’m excited. I’m glad he’s a part of this, and I’m excited for him to come and play with us. I think all it does is add more value to us and to what we are trying to do.”
When the press conference ended, he made his way toward the first tee to meet up with Lee Westwood and their pro-am partners, one of whom was Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the Saudi businessman who heads the Public Investment Fund. Mickelson was back in his element, telling Ryder Cup stories, charming the members of his group, asking about their families and frequently expressing adoration for their amateur golf swings.
“Oh yes sir!” Mickelson said after watching Al-Rumayyan smack a drive toward the middle of the fairway. “That’s what we’re talking about. Great shot. You know, you guys could have let me help us out on this hole, but I knew His Excellency was going to bomb one down the middle.”
The group grinned at Mickelson as he adjusted his aviators. He continued telling stories and cracking jokes as the group strolled toward the fairway.