TULSA, Okla. — Want to make a professional golfer squirm?
Just ask about the two biggest topics this week at the PGA Championship at Southern Hills: Phil Mickelson’s self-imposed exile and the ongoing controversy involving the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series.
“You just went and threw two bombs at me,” Jordan Spieth said sheepishly Wednesday. “Everyone was lobbing me [easy] questions, and you just went and threw two bombs.”
Once the tournament begins Thursday, Mickelson and the LIV Golf controversy will fade into the background. But Mickelson’s absence, and the reasons behind it, have been the dominant story line in golf for the past three months, and continued to be this week in Oklahoma.
“It’s unfortunate. It’s sad,” Rory McIlroy said. “I don’t know what else I can say.”
This week was supposed to be a celebration of Mickelson. He is the defending PGA champion, winning by two strokes at Kiawah Island last year to capture his sixth major. At 50 years old, he became the oldest major champion in history.
Instead, the only presence Mickelson has at Southern Hills is an 8-foot poster of him holding the Wanamaker Trophy that greets fans as they enter the grounds.
Mickelson officially informed PGA officials last Friday that he wouldn’t be defending his title. But he hasn’t been seen or heard from since playing in his last PGA Tour event in late January. He hasn’t tweeted since Feb. 22.
Mickelson’s shockingly insensitive comments about the Saudi royal family, the killing of journalist Jamaal Khashoggi, and the LIV series — which is backed by the Saudi Arabian government — cost him most of his sponsors and sent him into hiding.
Mickelson skipped the Masters in early April, and still wasn’t ready to show his face this week at the PGA. He has submitted an entry to play in the US Open at The Country Club in Brookline next month, but that doesn’t mean he will play. He did the same for the PGA, too.
“I think it’s unfortunate Phil is not here,” Spieth said. “His accomplishment last year was insane, one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of the game. Hopefully things can just get back to normal and everybody can kind of get back to the way things were.”
Back to normal? Good luck. The LIV series is trying to upend the PGA Tour, wooing golfers with massive purses and a more player-friendly setup — 54-hole tournaments, no cuts, a $25 million purse at each event, and more control over their NFT rights. The fourth tournament in the series will be held in the Boston area at The International Sept. 2-4.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan is setting a hard line. The Tour refused to grant exemptions for players who want to play in the LIV event June 9-11 in London, and last year Monahan threatened a lifetime PGA Tour ban for any player who participates in a LIV event.
“Honestly, it’s going to shape the future of professional golf one way or another,” McIlroy said. “So I think we’re just going to have to see how it all shakes out.”
It appears that a few of the older golfers, ones like Mickelson who are on the downside of their careers, are intrigued by the new tour and its promises of riches. Sergio Garcia, 42, asked to play in the London event. Two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, Garcia grumbled under his breath, “I can’t wait to leave this tour … just a couple of more weeks until I don’t have to deal with you anymore,” after a disagreement with a rules official.
But the PGA Tour probably doesn’t have to worry about mass defections to LIV. Stars such as Justin Thomas, Collin Morikawa, McIlroy, and Spieth all pledged allegiance this week.
“I’m very content with the direction the PGA Tour is going,” Thomas said. “I think a lot of players feel the same way, which is very important. We have a lot of loyalty to the tour. They have done a lot for us.”
Tiger Woods made it clear that he supports the PGA Tour and is squarely against Mickelson’s sentiments.
“Some of his views on how the Tour could be run, should be run — been a lot of disagreement there,” Woods said Tuesday. “I understand different viewpoints, 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.”
Woods and Mickelson were never great friends, but their relationship had softened over the years, particularly since the 2016 Ryder Cup.
Until, that is, Mickelson started griping openly about the PGA Tour and considering a defection to LIV.
“I have not reached out to him. I have not spoken to him,” Woods said. “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 reached out to him.”
Mickelson’s comments cost him millions from sponsors and a chance to defend his PGA title. And they are making life really uncomfortable for his peers.
“I’m just here to try to win a golf tournament,” Thomas said. “I think a lot of people very similar to myself are just kind of ready for it to happen or not, and us stop answering questions about it.”
Ben Volin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.