BROOKLINE, Mass. – Phil Mickelson didn’t have any answers.
The smartest guy in the room, the swashbuckler who never saw a shot he couldn’t take on, Mickelson on Monday wasn’t about to take on any unnecessary risks in this setting, the TV cameras rolling. He finally played it safe – and said nothing at all.
After a four-month exile, the 51-year-old Hall of Famer returned to public life last week at the inaugural LIV Golf event outside London. Before arriving, he attempted to explain his controversial but expected decision to join the rival tour. In an interview with Sports Illustrated, he talked about having more balance in his life. How he’s been in therapy for his gambling addiction. How he’s full of gratitude and appreciation for his three decades spent on the PGA Tour. It was a shrewd move to shift the narrative, but a squad of scribes, hungry for more, still awaited him two days later at the Centurion Club. Sporting stubble on his face and wearing only his personal logo, he sidestepped his way through an uncomfortable press conference, pausing for an uncomfortable amount of time to ponder questions, then carefully crafting answers chock full of nothingness. After he finished 34th in the 48-man field of mostly has-beens and nobodies, it’d be reasonable to expect Mickelson – who reportedly was paid upwards of $200 million to join the upstart league – to step in front of a microphone to praise the kickoff event and trumpet the new era in golf.
Instead, he declined to speak to the press and jetted back across the Atlantic.
Early-Monday afternoon media interviews at majors are typically reserved for the cute storylines – for the local product, the unlikely qualifier. Mickelson even filled the 1 p.m. slot last year at Torrey Pines, where he happily discussed his remarkable PGA victory. And here he was again at The Country Club: 1 p.m. local time, Monday. Same time, different tone.
For any other player in the field, the press tent featuring two aisles of three rows will be more than sufficient. But for Mickelson, every spot was accounted for – and then some, with media members spilling out the sides and lining up at the back.
Mickelson arrived by cart a few minutes before 1, sans hat, his dark hair slicked back, his aviator shades on. He was flanked by his longtime agent, Steve Loy, and his caddie/brother, Tim, who wore, unironically, a Presidents Cup backpack, the tournament that the suspended Mickelson is now ineligible to play.
To start, Mickelson offered a generic 268-word opening statement – about his “necessary” time away, about how he’s focused on his “best path forward,” about how he respects there’ll be “strong” opinions regarding his career choices.
At the end, he paused.
Oh, there were plenty.
Over the next half-hour, Mickelson was asked 28 questions. During the grilling, he never got overly flustered, only a bit snippy. He never lost his temper. Even when a reporter suggested in a question (perhaps correctly) that his peers had “lost an awful lot of respect” for him, he never engaged in a petty back and forth.
He offered no detailed explanations or justifications. Mostly, he just … stood there and took the beating.
Sure, he understood that a portion of his fan base might feel betrayed by him.
“I respect and I understand their opinions.”
No, it wouldn’t bother him if his peers snickered or sneered at him.
“I respect if they disagree, but at this time this is the right decision [for me].”
A USA Today reporter asked about the letter that the families of Sept. 11 victims had sent to Mickelson and the other boldfaced names who had bolted for the Saudi-backed league. Amid her lengthy preamble, Mickelson cut her off.
“I’ve read all that – is there a question in there?”
“Yes, there is,” she said. “How do you explain to them what you have done?”
“I have deep, deep empathy for them,” Mickelson said. “I can’t emphasize that enough. I have the deepest of sympathy and empathy for them.”
And on it went.
Mickelson didn’t offer any personal feelings about having two upcoming LIV events held at courses owned by former President Donald Trump, even with the House select committee holding its second hearing on Monday to investigate the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“Those discussions should be held privately behind closed doors,” he said.
He didn’t seem bothered by the suggestion that his legacy will be altered by this late-career money grab.
“I’ve done all I can to help contribute to the game, contribute to the PGA Tour during my time with them, and that’s all I can do.”
And after espousing what he believes are the virtues of LIV Golf – the “obvious, incredible financial commitment,” as well as the limited schedule – he had no response for why he even wanted to continue to play on the PGA Tour, since his issues apparently ran so deep that he searched for an alternative and wound up in the warm embrace of his new Saudi bosses.
“I’ve earned that lifetime membership, so I believe that it should be my choice.”
Only one of the 28 questions was about his golf, and even that seemed like one too many. For years, U.S. Open week dawned a familiar question: Is this the year Lefty finally captures the final leg of the Slam? But no one seriously considers that possibility, not this week, not anymore. He’s here at Brookline not as a worthy challenger, but as a sideshow. He’ll sip his coffee, pop his thumb and resurface again in a few weeks in Portland.
“It’s going to be a brutal test of golf,” he said, and that doesn’t even factor in the two days of harassment he’s likely to endure.
His presser over, Mickelson plopped into a cart, was driven about a hundred yards up the hill and got dropped off by a white Lexus GX460. His SUV was parked at the end of a row reserved for former champions, and Mickelson quickly hopped in, peeled out of the lot and left the property.
In that spot, in this U.S. Open, he surely must have recognized that he didn’t belong.