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Phil Mickelson absorbs LIV Golf criticism from Tiger Woods with ‘respect’

Phil Mickelson said he “couldn't be happier” with his decision to join the LIV Golf series. (Alastair Grant/AP)

Tiger Woods was unusually plain-spoken when asked this week about golfers such as Phil Mickelson who have joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit. Offered the chance to respond Thursday, Mickelson chose not to turn up the dial on what has been a hot topic at the British Open.

Woods said Tuesday that he disagrees “with [the decision of golfers such as Mickelson to join LIV Golf]. I think that what they’ve done is they’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.”

After his even-par 72 in the first round Thursday at St. Andrews, Mickelson was diplomatic when asked about the strong language from Woods.

“I certainly respect his opinion,” Mickelson said. “I have a lot of respect for him. I respect his opinion. I think everybody’s going to have strong emotions and opinions about it, and I certainly respect his.”

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Woods and Mickelson have had an up-and-down relationship over the years, one that has warmed as they’ve aged. But Woods was unsparing in his LIV Golf critique, broadening it to include Greg Norman, its CEO.

“The R&A obviously have their opinions and their rulings and their decision,” Woods said, referring to one of golf’s governing bodies, which declined to invite Norman to this year’s Celebration of Champions. “Greg has done some things that I don’t think are in the best interest of our game,” Woods said, “and we’re coming back to probably the most historic and traditional place in our sport. I believe it’s the right thing.”

Despite winning the 2013 British Open at Muirfield, Mickelson did not attend the Open’s 150th anniversary celebrations this week. He also missed Monday’s Celebrations of Champions and Tuesday’s champions’ dinner. Past Open champions were invited to both. It was perhaps a mark of how much his reputation has suffered.

“The R&A contacted me a couple weeks before and said, ‘Look, we don’t think it’s a great idea you go, but if you want to, you can,’ ” Mickelson said. “I just didn’t want to make a big deal about it, so I said fine. We both kind of agreed that it would be best if I didn’t.”

Mickelson had also missed this year’s champions’ dinners at the Masters and PGA Championship during his months-long absence from the sport. The defending PGA Championship winner, Mickelson skipped this year’s tournament after igniting controversy with his comments about LIV Golf, saying he would overlook Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to get the new enterprise up and running.

“They’re scary motherf------ to get involved with,” he told writer Alan Shipnuck of the Saudis. Still, Mickelson joined the breakaway circuit, reportedly landing a nine-figure deal to do so.

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Several golfers lost sponsorship deals after joining the new series, but the price may be especially steep for Mickelson, long one of the sport’s most popular players. Gone are the multiple logos he once wore in exchange for sponsors’ money. On Thursday, he wore only his personal logo, the silhouette of his Masters celebration, on his cap. Otherwise, he was a bearded, sunglasses-wearing man in black. LIV Golf’s next event is July 29 to 31 at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J.

Mickelson is part of a large contingent of LIV Golf players at the Open, after the R&A decided last month that any player who had qualified for this year’s tournament could play. Englishman Ian Poulter, one of those players, was greeted with a smattering of boos when he began his first round Thursday that he said he “didn’t hear.” Mickelson’s reception was warmer but possibly less enthusiastic than he has been accustomed to over the years.

Still, Mickelson said he remains happy with his decision to join LIV Golf, which is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

“I made the right decision for me,” Mickelson said. “And I’m excited about, like I say, having the opportunity to play competitive golf and have it in my life in a more moderate scale to where I can do some things outside of that, too. I freed up a lot of other — freed up a lot of time as well.

“I couldn’t be happier. I think it’s been really good. I can’t wait to get to New Jersey and play another event there. The player experience, the experience of those events from a player standpoint is a 10. You can’t get it any better. Look, it’s not my job to explain or help you understand or whatever. It’s just, I couldn’t be happier.”