Phil Mickelson left the first LIV Golf Invitational Series beat up. The Centurion Club course took its toll as he attempted to play for the first time in more than four months. So, too, did the media, often relentless in its criticism of the Saudi-backed circuit for which he has chosen to take his rusty skills.
The issues in his game are easily explained, given that he put his clubs away for a considerable time in the aftermath of his announced leave from the game.
The condemnation of his actions is simply something that he will have to endure, something he clearly knew was coming given the controversy that surrounds LIV Golf. It would be a polarizing issue without Saudi backing; throw in the Public Investment Fund, Saudi’s human rights abuses, and the notion that he – and the others who take part – is willing to front for the country by taking the money.
The British tabloid media had a particularly easy time of it. The Daily Mail, for example, referenced him as “Greed Jacket’’ Mickelson. The questions during his Wednesday news conference were understandably pointed and unrelenting.
And it is unlikely to go away.
Mickelson plays his first event on American soil this week at The Country Club, site of one of “Lefty’s’’ fondest memories – victory at the 1999 Ryder Cup. It is the only time both he and Tiger Woods played on the same winning Ryder Cup team. Woods, unlike the Masters and PGA Championship earlier this year, won’t be outside of Boston to take the spotlight away.
The Boston fan base has a bit of a reputation when it comes to pointed abuse. Ask Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors. Could it really happen to Phil, a U.S. Open fan favorite for the bulk of his 30-year career? The six-time runner-up at the only major he has not won began his professional career at the event played at Pebble Beach in 1992.
Twenty years ago, he was the darling of the New York supporters at Bethpage, dubbed “the People’s Open,’’ even though Woods won.
What kind of reception will Mickelson receive? There is sad history at the very venue, where at the 1999 Ryder Cup, spectators on Sunday became so unruly with their abuse toward Scotland’s Colin Montgomerie that his opponent – Payne Stewart – came to his defense and asked security to have people removed.
Sweden’s Jarmo Sandelin was also the subject of considerable berating. He happened to be playing Mickelson that day as the Americans rallied to in improbable victory, overcoming what appeared to be certain defeat.
Now Mickelson could be on the receiving end at what might possibly be his last U.S. Open. The United States Golf Association said last week it would not prohibit any LIV Golf players from competing, saying it would be improper to alter its qualifying criteria.
But given that the PGA Tour has indefinitely suspended all those with PGA Tour memberships – even those who gave them up – could the USGA alter its criteria going forward?
It is just one of the many questions still to be answered in the aftermath of the stunning developments over the past months.
Unlikely to be a surprise is Mickelson struggling at The Country Club. While Centurion Club was no pushover, it is certainly not U.S. Open-caliber, either. After shooting 69 the first day, Mickelson had numerous issues in shooting 75-76 over the final two rounds. He ended up tied for 34th in a 48-player field, finishing 17 strokes back of winner Charl Schwartzel.
The South African hasn’t exactly been a world beater of late – it was his first win in six years – and Mickelson needed only three rounds to produce that kind of deficit.
“If he does get in contention, it would be a miracle, I really think,’’ said NBC’s lead analyst, Paul Azinger, during a conference call last week. “A minor miracle that a guy that could get in contention with all that’s been going on.’’
Mickelson has typically been extremely popular with galleries and he will likely have plenty of support. But the LIV Golf issue has all manner of opinions.
“It’s a major disruption to the sport,’’ Azinger said. “I predict that, if Phil’s missing the cut, like on Friday afternoon or something, it can get pretty rough on him, though. I just think – this is a big step those guys have made. They’ve changed the game forever probably.
“I think the response will be mostly positive because he has been a fan favorite for so many years. But that Boston crowd, they’re going to let you know how they feel.’’
A Canadian Classic
Canadian golf fans deserved a drama-filled Sunday and Rory McIlroy produced, outlasting PGA champ Justin Thomas with Tony Finau, who finished second with a final-hole birdie. It was the first RBC Canadian Open in three years due to it being canceled in consecutive years due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 and 2021.
Spectators were clearly enjoying the show, and the place was packed for the weekend.
And given the upheaval in golf in recent days and weeks, it was good to see a couple of the game’s top players do battle between the ropes.
McIlroy shot a final-round 62 (he shot 61 three years ago when he won) to win for the 21st time on the PGA Tour – and then took a veiled shot at Greg Norman, commissioner of the LIV Golf Invitational Series – who has 20 career PGA Tour wins.
“It’s incredible,’’ McIlroy said. “Playing with Tony and JT today, two of the top players in the world and all of us playing the way we did. This is one I’ll remember for a long, long time. One more than someone else, that give me a little bit of extra incentive today.’’
McIroy, Finau and Thomas now all head to the U.S. Open with a good bit of confidence.
1. Rory McIlroy will attempt to become the first player to win a major championship following a victory on the PGA Tour since he did it in 2014 at the WGC-Bridgestone and the PGA Championship.
2. Justin Rose became the second player since 1983 to shoot or 60 or better with multiple bogeys during the round. Keegan Bradley shot 60 with two bogeys during the first round of the 2013 Byron Nelson.
3. The LIV Golf Series uses an F1-like podium for the top three finishers. But what if there is a tie? That happened with Branden Grace and Peter Uihlein, who both finished at 5 under. The tie was broken by comparing scorecards over their final nine holes. The players do, however, split third and fourth place money so each won $1,275,000. Because LIV is compiling points to determine an overall champion, all ties are broken in this way, but money is still split evenly.
4. Two players not already exempt earned a spot in the British Open via their finish at the Canadian Open having placed among the top eight. Keith Mitchell and Wyndham Clark qualified by tying for seventh as part of the Open qualifying series. Mitchell has now qualified for the tournament three times, previously in 2019 and 2020 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. Clark will play it for the first time.
Mickelson and the Masters
The fallout for Phil Mickelson included skipping the Masters and the PGA Championship, where he was defending champion. As he is about to turn 52, Mickelson will not have many more opportunities to be competitive, which made skipping all the more disappointing. During the Masters, Mickelson was skiing in Montana.
“Every day of the Masters I skied in the morning, and I watched the tournament afterwards,’’ he said. “I enjoyed watching it. I thought Scottie Scheffler put on an amazing performance there.
“I found myself missing the Masters but not wanting to be there. I had not played, I had not touched a club. I wasn’t in a position to be competitive. But I will aways love that tournament, and if I’m not there, I’ll always miss it. But I didn’t have a desire to be there.’’
Last week, after signing on with LIV Golf, Mickelson gave his first interview to SI.com/Morning Read. He had not spoken publicly in months. On Feb. 22, Mickelson issued an apology statement and noted that he would be spending time away to work on personal issues. In the aftermath, Mickelson’s management team only offered a statement saying he had entered the Masters and U.S. Open and requested a release for the first LIV event.
When he withdrew from the Masters, Mickelson said nothing, leaving it to field sleuths to recognized he was no longer in the field and have it confirmed by Augusta National. At the PGA Championship, the PGA of America put out a statement saying he would not play.
Throughout the time away, I had – like many others, undoubtedly – reached out to Mickelson and his team. I sent one text to Phil. I sent a few others to his agent, Steve Loy, never with a response. As it became clear in recent weeks that he would be signing on, I asked LIV Golf representatives if it might be possible to get him on the phone. My sense was he might want to discuss all the various issues before playing his first event.
On June 6, LIV Golf and Mickelson announced he would be competing in the tournament later that week and things then came together very quickly. I was leaving that day for London and had a layover of two hours in Detroit. As I was on my way to Detroit, I got word that he was willing to speak to me for a brief interview. All knew the time constraints involved. I was told no questions would be prohibited, but that they wanted all of his answers to be published. Hence, the Q&A format.
After landing in Detroit, I had less than 90 minutes before my flight to Heathrow would board. I had no idea if I would have internet access over the Atlantic (as it turns out, I did), so I felt I had to get this done.
A call was set up and I had Mickelson for 20 minutes while sitting in the Delta Sky Club lounge with all kinds of commotion around me. I asked every question you see in the linked Q&A. Afterward, I needed to go through, quickly, what he said, knowing now I had less than 40 minutes before my flight would board. Thankfully, the boarding process was delayed, giving me a bit more time. I sent what I had to editor John Schwarb, he helped clean up all the typos I missed, and got the story published less than two hours from the time I first started talking to Mickelson.
St. Andrews honor
Jack Nicklaus will receive honorary citizenship in St. Andrews next month during the week of the British Open at the home of golf. Nicklaus, 82, won three British Opens among his 18 major titles, and two at St. Andrews in 1970 and 1978.
Nicklaus will become just the third American and the first to be made honorary citizen since Bobby Jones was made a Freeman of St. Andrews in 1958. The recognition is the same as being awarded freedom of the city, which Nicklaus said he is “deeply honored’’ to receive.
Also at the ceremony will be Lee Trevino, Jose Maria Olazabal, Catriona Matthew, Sir Bob Charles and Sandy Lyle, all of whom will receive honorary degrees from St. Andrews University.
U.S. Open Countdown
The U.S. Open begins Thursday at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, home to one of the big early moments in golf history when Francis Ouimet, a 20-year-old amateur, defeated British greats Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in a playoff.
The Country Club also featured a couple of other famous playoffs, with Arnold Palmer losing (for the second of three times in U.S. Open playoffs) to Julius Boros in 1963 and Curtis Strange winning the first of consecutive U.S. Open, this one in a playoff over Nick Faldo.
Last week saw the field round into shape as nine final qualifiers took place, with eight in the United States and one in Canada. Those not otherwise qualified who were in the top 60 as of last Monday also earned a spot, as did 10 players off a U.K. qualifying system based on four DP World Tour events.
— DP World Tour (@DPWorldTour) June 12, 2022
It was impressive performance by Linn Grant, who became the first woman to win on the DP World Tour.
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) June 9, 2022
An interesting way to watch the Canadian Open.
Golf's most famous trophy, the Claret Jug, will tour the UK and Ireland ahead of The 150th Open at St Andrews, visiting schools, golf clubs and city centres 🏆
— The Open (@TheOpen) June 10, 2022
The Claret Jug will be making the rounds.
with the addition of Phil Mickelson LIV has officially locked in all four men's major champions from 2010 pic.twitter.com/cin36XZZUr
— Dylan Dethier (@dylan_dethier) June 6, 2022
The winners of the majors in 2010 – Phil Mickelson, Graeme McDowell, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer – are all part of the LIV Golf Invitational Series now.
Next (Major) Up
After this week, just one major championship remains in 2022 – the British Open at the home of golf. The Old Course at St Andrews. This will be the 150th playing of the Open Championship and much will undoubtedly be said about that in the lead-up to the tournament, which begins July 15.