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Phil Mickelson supports breakaway Saudi golf league despite country’s ‘horrible’ human rights record

Phil Mickelson played a European Tour event in Saudi Arabia this month. (Oisin Keniry/Getty Images)
6 min

Pro golfer Phil Mickelson is willing to overlook Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to force the PGA Tour to further enrich its players, he told journalist Alan Shipnuck in comments that were published Thursday and will appear in Shipnuck’s upcoming Mickelson biography.

Mickelson, a six-time major winner and one of the world’s most popular golfers, detailed to Shipnuck his involvement in the creation of the Saudi Golf League, a breakaway circuit being planned to challenge the PGA Tour and one that is backed by the Public Investment Fund, which is essentially the financial arm of the Saudi government. He told Shipnuck that he and three other unnamed “top players” paid for attorneys to write the operating agreement for the SGL, which reportedly will feature 12 to 14 tournaments annually, with fields of 40 golfers, no cuts and guaranteed prize money.

But before he took that step, Mickelson said he needed to overcome his feelings about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, which he described as “horrible.”

Barry Svrluga: Take note of the PGA golfers who play in Saudi Arabia. They’re accepting blood money.

“They’re scary motherf------ to get involved with,” Mickelson told Shipnuck in November. “We know they killed [Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi] and have a horrible record on human rights. 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 [PGA Tour Commissioner Jay 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 SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

Public player dissatisfaction and rumors of the upstart Saudi tour have forced the PGA Tour to make financial concessions to its players that go beyond the purse money won at tournaments. Last year, it was revealed that the PGA Tour had created a Player Impact Program to funnel more money to the golfers in the form of bonuses based on public-visibility metrics such as Q Score and social media presence. In December, the tour announced — via a memo that was leaked to reporters — that it was launching a video-based NFT platform, which it said would be a “new incremental revenue opportunity for players.”

But to Mickelson’s frustration, the PGA Tour still owns the media rights to its players and the video highlights of the golfers’ shots. He claimed to Shipnuck that Turner Sports had to pay the Tour a $1 million licensing fee each time Mickelson has participated in “The Match,” the match-play exhibitions that also have featured Tiger Woods, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and NFL stars.

The PGA Tour is “sitting on hundreds of millions of dollars worth of digital content we could be using for our social media feeds,” Mickelson, who has earned an estimated $1.075 billion over his career in tournament winnings, endorsements and revenue from his golf course design business, told Shipnuck. “The players need to own all of that. We played those shots, we created those moments, we should be the ones to profit. The Tour doesn’t need that money. They are already sitting on an $800 million cash stockpile. How do you think they’re funding the PIP? Or investing $200 million in the European Tour? The Tour is supposed to be a nonprofit that distributes money to charity. How the f--- is it legal for them to have that much cash on hand? The answer is, it’s not. But they always want more and more. They have to control everything. Their ego won’t allow them to make the concessions they need to.”

Monahan told players in May that anyone who signed with the breakaway Saudi league would face a lifetime ban from PGA Tour events and the Ryder Cup. (The PGA Tour does not operate golf’s four majors.) Still, golfer Kramer Hickok told the “Stripe Show” podcast this week that he thinks 17 golfers already have “jumped over” to the breakaway circuit, which reportedly could begin this year and plans on holding most of its tournaments in the United States. Earlier this week, Shipnuck tweeted that 20 golfers have committed to the SGL and that it will be unveiled the week of the Players Championship, the PGA Tour’s marquee event that begins March 10.

Neither Hickock nor Shipnuck identified any of the players, but Hickock said “a lot of big names” could sign on. Among them might be Jason Kokrak, a three-time PGA Tour winner who said ahead of this week’s Genesis Invitational that he had been in discussions with the Saudi league, namely because he plans to retire in eight years and wants to make as much money as he can before then. Others reportedly include two-time major winner Dustin Johnson, 2020 U.S. Open champion DeChambeau and aging European stars such as Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Henrik Stenson, all of whom have made millions over their careers.

But other golfers, many of them the sport’s best young stars, said they are not interested.

Justin Thomas, winner of the 2017 PGA Championship, is one of them. On Thursday, he called Mickelson’s statements “egotistical” and said golfers are free to leave the PGA Tour if they choose.

“He’s done a lot of great things for the PGA Tour. It’s a big reason it is where it is,” Thomas said. “But him and others that are very adamant about that, if they’re that passionate, go ahead. I don’t think anybody’s stopping them.”

Collin Morikawa, who has won two of the past six majors and is only 25, on Tuesday said he’s “all for the PGA Tour.”

“Right now you look at the best players that I see, and they’re all sticking with the PGA Tour, and that’s where I kind of stay and that’s where I belong,” Morikawa said.

Jon Rahm, the world’s top-ranked player and the winner of last year’s U.S. Open, also has said no. Same with Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Koepka.

The same goes for Tiger Woods, who would be the ultimate catch for the SGL even though he has said his days as a full-time player are over because of the injuries he suffered in a car crash last year. In November, he declined any interest in the breakaway circuit, saying, “The Tour is in great hands.”

“I’ve decided for myself that I’m supporting the PGA Tour. That’s where my legacy is,” Woods said. “I’ve been fortunate enough to have won 82 events on this tour and 15 major championships, and been a part of the World Golf Championships, the start of them and the end of them. So I have allegiance to the PGA Tour.”

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