Phil Mickelson stepped to the microphone at the U.S. Open for the first news conference of the rest of his life looking like a pale shadow of his old self. His eyes were wider, his cheeks flecked with fragments of gray beard. Where once he’d sparred with the media like he was angling for a debate-team prize, now he was parrying barbed questions with dodges, evasions and brief non-answers. He wasn’t nervous — Phil Mickelson doesn’t get nervous — but he clearly wasn’t relishing this particular inquisition.
Mickelson is a week removed from his reentry into public life, three-plus months removed from the publication of comments that sent him into golf exile. Less than 48 hours before the news conference, he picked up a $150,000 check for three days’ work at the inaugural LIV Golf tournament, the first stop on an upstart tour that has promised him a reported $200 million in appearance fees. For that, he upended a 30-year relationship with the PGA Tour and saw sponsors flee.
“It's nice to be back,” he said in an opening statement. “It's been four months. It's been a necessary time and an opportunity for me to step away a little bit and put a little bit of thought and reflection into going forward and how to best prioritize things.”
Mickelson returns to the United States as a marked man. His decision to join LIV is an indelible part of his story now, as much as his on-course daring and his 3-inch vertical. He chose money over legacy, and he’s about to find out exactly what that means to his fans.
“In regards to if fans would leave or whatnot,” Mickelson said, “I respect and I understand their opinions, and I understand that they have strong feelings and strong emotions regarding this choice, and I certainly respect them, respect that. I respect that.”
“Respect” — as in, respecting the opinions of fans, of critical media, of fellow players — was the theme of the day for Mickelson. He never once uttered any variant of “apologize,” “sorry,” or “regret,” but “respect” popped up 16 different times in the 25-minute conference. Mickelson, in effect, was saying that everyone’s entitled to their opinion … but he’d made his decision.
He used a similar tactic — deploying the words “sympathy” and “empathy” — when addressing questions about 9/11 families criticizing his decision to take money from a Saudi-backed enterprise.
“I think I speak for pretty much every American in that we feel the deepest of sympathy and the deepest of empathy for those that have lost loved ones, friends in 9/11,” he said. “It affected all of us, and those that have been directly affected … I can't emphasize enough how much empathy I have for them.” Left unsaid: any response to their withering scorn for his career path.
There was an air of regret hovering over the day, the sense that perhaps Mickelson had unleashed something that he couldn’t control, with consequences he couldn’t foresee. He didn’t resign his PGA Tour membership, after all, and seemed to take great pride in pointing out that he has achieved the Tour’s highest honor.
“I gave as much back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf that I could throughout my 30 years here, and through my accomplishments on the course I've earned a lifetime membership,” he said. “I intend to keep that and then choose going forward which events to play and not.”
That idea — that he’ll be in control, that he will be the one to choose where he plays next, regardless of commitments, rules, expectations or beliefs — defines Mickelson. He doesn’t ever want to be told what to do — doesn’t want to be told what he can’t do — and so he can’t fathom a world in which, somehow, he can’t talk his way back into everyone’s good graces.
Mickelson paused several times before answering questions, probably a wise play considering how many people involved with LIV have run into trouble with careless quotes before. One pause was particularly interesting. When asked whether he would be at peace with never competing on the PGA Tour again, he took the longest silence of the day, perhaps reckoning with the implication of the question.
“I am, again, very appreciative of the many memories, opportunities, experiences, friendships, relationships PGA Tour has provided,” he finally said, “and those are going to last — those will last a lifetime, but I'm hopeful that I'll have a chance to create more.” It was an answer with a whole lot more hope and optimism than current events warrant.
The galleries at The Country Club will be a fascinating subplot this week. Always vocal, never shy about sharing opinions, Boston crowds are likely to share their views on Phil’s life change at high volume. Will they support him? Will they rip him? Probably a whole lot of both. No one has had a mild opinion about Phil Mickelson in 30 years.
One day soon — probably not at the U.S. Open, but soon — Phil will get his groove back. He’ll be the cocky, know-it-all-and-more daredevil he’s been for the past 30 years as a pro. That’s what he does, get into trouble that would crack lesser players, and find his way back to the green again. The question now is, how many people will be waiting to cheer him once he gets there?
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee.