AUGUSTA, Ga. – The room looked full enough. There was Ben Crenshaw, the evening’s default emcee, Jack Nicklaus and defending champion/host Hideki Matsuyama. All total, there were 32 at Tuesday’s Champions Dinner, including Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.
By all accounts from the official photo, there were nothing but smiles and good times, but that ignored the outspoken left-handed elephant in the room. Actually, it was the elephant that wasn’t in the room Tuesday evening that grabed the attention.
For the first time since 2004 the dinner didn’t include Phil Mickelson, who announced earlier this year he was stepping away from golf “to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.”
The 86th Masters will be the first played without the southpaw on the tee sheet since 1994. That’s two years before Will Zalatoris, who is among this year’s Masters favorites, was even born and three years before Tiger Woods changed the golf world with his 12-stroke victory at Augusta National.
At an event that clings to traditions, Lefty’s no-show Tuesday night created a quiet commotion. It was no secret Mickelson wouldn’t play this year’s Masters, but his empty locker hit in its own unique way.
It’s not often a player who is not at Augusta National creates headlines at the Masters, but such are the times. For Mickelson, this goes to his not-so-veiled flirtation with the Saudi-backed Super Golf League. While neither Mickelson nor any other player has announced loyalty to the start-up circuit, the overtures were clear enough.
In February at the Saudi International, Mickelson outlined the PGA Tour’s “obnoxious” greed to Golf Digest. Two weeks later in an interview with Alan Shipnuck for an upcoming biography, Mickelson appeared to go full scorched earth when he singed both the PGA Tour – claiming commissioner Jay Monahan “won’t do what’s right” – and the super league – calling the Saudis “scary motherf--kers.”
Shortly afterward, Mickelson announced he was stepping away following his “reckless” comments, which is comically ironic considering his entire career has been defined by recklessness.
There isn’t much protocol for this type of thing. Past champions are always welcomed back at Augusta National, but there had been some speculation that Mickelson was told, politely but clearly, that he might want to miss this year’s tournament. This club is notoriously private, but Ridley was quick to set the record straight.
“I would like to say we did not disinvite Phil,” the chairman said on Wednesday. “Phil is a three-time Masters champion and is invited in that category and many other categories; he's the defending PGA champion.”
Ridley went on to explain that Mickelson reached out to him in “late February, early March” via text message.
“I thanked him for his courtesy in letting me know,” the chairman said. “I told him that we certainly appreciated that and told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he'd like, and he thanked me, and we had a very cordial exchange.”
Through the lens of history, Ridley’s comments were conspicuously vague and, at least by comparison, restrained. More than a decade ago, the chairman’s predecessor was not nearly as vague or restrained when Tiger Woods returned to competition in the wake of a ’09 car crash and ensuing scandal.
“It is not simply the degree of his conduct that is so egregious here; it is the fact that he disappointed all of us, and more importantly, our kids and our grand kids,” then-chairman Billy Payne said of Woods. “Our hero did not live up to the expectations of the role model we saw for our children.”
In Ridley’s defense, the extent of Mickelson’s misgivings, beyond his reckless remarks, is unknown. At this moment he’s simply in a bad way, as they say here in the Deep South. Even at last month’s Players Championship, there was a distinct reluctance by Monahan to publicly scold Mickelson. According to the commissioner, Lefty hasn’t been suspended, although he did suggest there would need to be a “conversation” when/if he returns.
“I know that Phil has been a real fixture here at the Masters for many, many years. He's been a big part of our history,” Ridley said. “I certainly - and we certainly - wish him the best, sort of working through the issues he's dealing with right now.”
Many of the Masters’ greatest moments the last two decades have been produced by Mickelson. The iconic “jump” when he broke through in 2004 to win his first green jacket. The commanding performance two years later for his second consecutive major triumph. The fearless 6-iron from the pine straw at the par-5 13th hole to set the stage for his third and most recent victory in ’10.
He was the low amateur in ’91, the first time he played the Masters, and is a combined 72 under par in 110 tournament rounds at Augusta National. He is as much a part of the modern era of the Masters as egg salad and azaleas, which is why Tuesday’s dinner was eerily incomplete. It was there tucked away behind the 32 smiling faces in the official photo that a part of the dinner, a part of this tradition, was missing.