If Mickelson Bolts for Saudi-Backed Tour, Will Young Golfers Follow?

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It is hardly a surprise that Phil Mickelson is playing the provocateur in the growing drama over a proposed, breakaway Saudi Arabia-backed golf league that hopes to lure top professional golfers from the long-established PGA Tour. Mickelson, one of the game’s most popular players, has simultaneously spent nearly three decades vexing the sport’s leadership, whether it has been the august United States Golf Association or the PGA Tour, from whom Mickelson has collected nearly $100 million in career earnings.

So Mickelson’s pedigree as a freethinking firebrand is well established. But even that reputation could not have forecast the striking comments attributed to him when discussing the proposed Super Golf League, whose main source of funding is the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, a sovereign wealth fund worth more than $400 billion.

In an interview for an unauthorized biography to be released in May, Mickelson told journalist Alan Shipnuck, the book’s author, that he knew of the kingdom’s “horrible record on human rights,” but was willing to help the new league because it was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity” to dramatically increase PGA Tour players’ income.

In a story posted on “The Firepit Collective” golf website, Shipnuck quoted Mickelson as saying the Saudi authorities were “scary,” and used a profanity to describe them. He noted the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post journalist who was assassinated in 2018 with the approval of the kingdom’s crown prince, according to U.S. intelligence officials. Mickelson also alluded to the criminalization of homosexuality in Saudi Arabia, where it is punishable by death.

“We know they killed Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights,” Mickelson was quoted as saying. “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.”

Mickelson’s main target was Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, who he claimed would help players financially only if forced to do so. The upstart league, Mickelson said, gave the players new leverage. Earlier this month, in an interview with Golf Digest, Mickelson castigated the tour for its “obnoxious greed.”

For Mickelson, who is 51 and a six-time major champion, his remarks will likely only further isolate him from the young golfers rising in the sport. For the most part, these new kingpins of golf have pledged their allegiance to the PGA Tour, which has vowed to suspend any player aligning with the alternative league., with lifetime expulsion from the PGA Tour also a possibility.

Thursday at the Genesis Invitational, a tour event being played near Los Angeles, Justin Thomas, who is eighth in the men’s world golf rankings and active in helping set tour policies, was unsparing when discussing Mickelson.

“Seems like a bit of a pretty, you know, egotistical statement,” Thomas said. Referring to Mickelson and any other players who want to defect from the tour, Thomas, 28, added: “If they’re that passionate, go ahead. I don’t think anybody’s stopping them.”

While no tour golfer has committed to the upstart league, a few golfers, most of them over 45, have been noncommittal about it and offered mild praise for some elements proposed by the rival league, like fewer tournaments and appearance fees at events that are paid to top golfers regardless of how they perform on the golf course.

But the split with the golfers born after 1985 could not be more conspicuous.

Rory McIlroy, a four-time major winner, called the proposed new golf circuit “the not so super league.” He added: “I’m so sick of it.”

McIlroy, 32, also suggested that it was only older players past their prime looking for a hefty payday who are weighing an exit from the PGA Tour.

“I can maybe make sense of it for the guys that are getting to the latter stages of their career, for sure,” he said. “But I don’t think that’s what a rival golf league is really. That’s not what they’re going to want, is it? They don’t want some sort of league that’s like a pre-Champions Tour.”

The Champions Tour is a scaled-down, separate wing of tournaments within the PGA Tour umbrella that is open to golfers more than 50 years old.

“You’ve got the top players in the world saying ‘no,’ so that has to tell you something,” McIlroy said.

Jon Rahm, the top-ranked men’s golfer, was also dismissive of the proposed league.

“I don’t do this for the money, which to me is the only appeal to go over there,” Rahm, 27, said. “They throw numbers at you and that’s supposed to impress people. I’m in this game for the love of golf and the love of the game and to become a champion.”

Perhaps the hottest young star, Collin Morikawa, 25, shook his head when asked where he stands on the potential for a new league.

“I’m all for the PGA Tour, my entire life I’ve thought about the PGA Tour,” Morikawa, who has won two major championships in the last two years, said. “I’ve never thought about anything else; it’s always been the PGA Tour.”

Many other players have expressed support for the PGA Tour, most notably the golfer who served as the idol for nearly all the young players now rising to the top of tour leaderboards.

“I’m supporting the PGA Tour,” Tiger Woods said emphatically late last year when asked about the proposed venture. “That’s where my legacy is.”

When pressed, Woods looked almost annoyed and insisted he had no interest in listening to discussions about a rival league.

Adam Scott, who is 41 and the 2013 Masters champion, did not close the door to joining the Saudi-backed league when asked about it this week. In the last decade, Scott has significantly reduced his playing schedule and fallen to No. 46 in the men’s rankings. Lee Westwood, who is 48 and a 25-time winner on the European Tour, said earlier this month that he had signed a nondisclosure agreement and could not discuss the projected new league.

But most pros on the PGA Tour do not seem to expect a major disruption of the status quo.

Pat Perez, an outspoken tour journeyman, believes Woods’s voice — not surprisingly — carries the most weight. The modern tour, after all, was built on the back of Woods’s towering successes. Perhaps one could consider this another chapter in the longstanding Mickelson-Woods rivalry.

“I think the way Tiger’s approaching it is phenomenal,” Perez, 45, said Thursday. “He understands where he made all his money. I think these young kids, they’re backing Tiger. What he says is pretty much gold.”

Perez continued: “If you don’t have the top kids doing it, I just don’t know how much water it’s going to hold.”

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