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At PGA, reigning champ Phil Mickelson’s absence is ‘elephant in the room’

Fans at Southern Hills are greeted by a poster of 2021 champion Phil Mickelson, who won the event at 50 last year. (Erik S. Lesser/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
6 min

TULSA — Here in the hot hills of northeast Oklahoma, Phil Mickelson once entered the players’ locker room at the end of the 2001 U.S. Open and stood at a sink in front of a mirror at 0 for 33 as a pro in major tournaments, his face epitomizing that athletic combination of spent and bummed.

Surely now for the 104th PGA Championship at this same Southern Hills, he would appear for a mass feting at a fine 6 for 115 in majors, a curtain call to his historic bow at Kiawah Island in South Carolina last year, where giddy swarms with beery veins followed golf’s oldest major winner ever up No. 18 beside the Atlantic.

Instead, while other defending champions have missed the defending part because of injury — Rory McIlroy at the 2015 British Open and Tiger Woods at the 2008 PGA, to name two — Mickelson has become the first to miss out because he made some vile comments about murder and execution published three months prior. It’s another nadir in his newfound role as ignoble recluse who has missed both the Masters and the PGA in firestorm avoidance.

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“This should be a celebration, right?” McIlroy said of Mickelson on Tuesday. “He won a major championship at 50 years old. It was possibly his last big moment in the game of golf. He should be — I think he should be here this week and celebrating what a monumental achievement he achieved last year. It’s unfortunate. It’s sad. Yeah, I don’t know what else I can say.”

Here, his shouting absence doubles as the “elephant in the room,” as PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh put it. Here, other people talk about him while he doesn’t talk about himself. Young comer Viktor Hovland called it “a bizarre situation, that’s for sure.” Longtime major-chaser Rickie Fowler called Mickelson’s self-inflicted plight “a rough go the last few months, a tough situation to be in,” and said, “It’s unfortunate that he didn’t feel like it’s the place that he should be right now.” Top-shelf golfers such as Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas said gently that they really didn’t have anything to say.

Brooks Koepka — who tied for second, two shots behind Mickelson, last year and won this event in 2018 and 2019 among four major titles — went his usual imperturbable route.

“Not here,” Koepka said of Mickelson. “There’s really not much else I can say.”

A few questions later, he did add something, which is that he expected more of himself than tied for second. “Last year I felt like [I] gave it away,” he said. “I didn’t put any pressure on him. I missed a two-foot putt on hole 4 or 3 or something like that and didn’t put any pressure all the way going through. Just didn’t do anything and just handed it to him.”

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That said, Mickelson still does get to keep the 2021 title.

“Look,” said Waugh, whose organization runs the PGA Championship, “no one was more excited than us last year when Phil had his epic win, right? It’s amazing. He’s done something nobody else has ever done and win a major at 50. It was one of the great moments in golf, and we’ll never sort of forget it. We certainly looked forward to him defending. He’s not here. ...

“It’s his choice. He and I have had some conversations before, during and after, and I can really say that on Friday his camp called and said he’s not ready to play. Obviously, we respect that. We understand it.”

In lacerating comments made to Golf Digest in Saudi Arabia in early February, Mickelson referred to the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious greed” and welcomed the prospective rival Saudi tour as a mechanism for dislodging more funds from the PGA Tour to the players. He emphasized media rights, including that the tour can “charge companies to use [clips of] shots I have hit.” He said of the PGA Tour, “It is the tour’s obnoxious greed that has really opened the door for opportunities elsewhere.”

In self-damning comments to writer Alan Shipnuck uttered last November but published later that month, Mickelson said of Saudi Arabia: “They’re scary motherf------ to get involved with. We know they killed [Jamal] Khashoggi” — the Saudi U.S. resident and Washington Post columnist — “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 want [the Saudi venture] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour.”

Speaking to reporters Tuesday, Tiger Woods said: “Well, it’s always disappointing when the defending champion’s not here. Phil has said some things that I think a lot of us who are committed to the tour and committed to the legacy of the tour have pushed back against, and he’s taken some personal time, and we all understand that.

“But I think that some of his views on how the tour could be run, should be run … been a lot of disagreement there. But as we all know, as a professional, we miss him being out here. I mean, he’s a big draw for the game of golf. He’s just taking his time, and we all wish him the best when he comes back. Obviously, we’re going to have differences of opinions, how he sees the tour, and we’ll go from there.”

Woods referred to the late 1960s, when Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer spearheaded a split from the PGA of America to form a players tour. “I understand different viewpoints,” Woods said, “but I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past. There’s plenty of money out here. The tour is growing. But it’s just like any other sport. . . . You have to go out there and earn it.”

To a question about whether he had contacted Mickelson, Woods said: “I have not reached out to him. I have not spoken to him. A lot of it has to do with, I think, personal issues. It was our viewpoints of how the tour should be run and could be run and what players are playing for and how we are playing for it. I have a completely different stance and so, no, I have not.”

The strangeness, and another major, play on.

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