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Exclusive: Phil Mickelson Discusses PGA Tour's Response to LIV: 'I'm Happy That Top Players Are Being Listened To'

The Hall of Famer declined to say that he felt vindicated, but said some of the similarities are 'interesting.' He also discussed his own legacy and future participation in major championships.
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The PGA Tour and commissioner Jay Monahan last week announced significant changes to the upcoming schedule, the Tour's purse structure and the commitment required of the top players to begin in 2023.

Phil Mickelson is pleased to see it all unfold.

The World Golf Hall of Famer who won six major championships and 45 PGA Tour titles has been part of a tumultuous year in golf that included harsh comments about the way the Tour conducted its business, and his own retreat from the game for months while the drama continued to play out.

Since returning in June for the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event outside of London, Mickelson has tried to be on his best behavior. He’s been contrite and apologetic as it relates to his own circumstances, but strong in his belief that golf needed change.

One of the biggest stars to defect to LIV Golf, Mickelson, 52, has seen his reputation take a hit and his legacy become uncertain. He endured pointed questions in both London and at the U.S. Open about the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, and the regime’s ties to the 9/11 attacks. One of the game’s all-time best players has, in many places, come to be viewed as a villain.

And yet, had Mickelson’s defection not occurred, would the PGA Tour be adding north of $160 million to players' pockets starting next year, with elevated events, big purses, a larger bonus pool and a commitment to get the game’s best players together more often?

In a 45-minute phone interview with Sports Illustrated on Thursday evening on the eve of the LIV Golf Invitational Series event outside of Boston, Mickelson touched on all these topics. While far from taking credit, he noted that the change fans and players will see on the PGA Tour would not have occurred without a threat, whether it was LIV Golf or some other entity.

He also commented on LIV’s quest for Official World Golf Ranking points, the plight of LIV players and the major championships, and efforts to improve his own game, which has suffered since his comeback but where he sees hope for a turnaround.

And, eventually, he sees a scenario where this disruptive year all works out for everyone in golf.

Sports Illustrated: What was your reaction to the announcement last week that the PGA Tour is going to require the top players to compete in specific events and ask them to play in more of them?

Phil Mickelson: “Well, they are getting a lot for it. So I’m extremely happy that the top players are being listened to and that their input is being valued. And that those events are coming about.’’

Should the top players feel this is enough?

PM: “I really don’t know what to say about the PGA Tour and their direction and what they should or should not be doing. My commitment now is with LIV. We’ve made some major disruption to the sport of golf, and have created some really unique opportunities for players and fans. And we’re just getting started.’’

Over the years, had you not advocated for similar ideas?

PM: “I think a lot of my conversations with (former PGA Tour commissioner Tim) Finchem going back 15, 18 years even up to a year ago (with commissioner Jay Monahan) are pretty well documented. So I probably don’t need to go into every detail. But it’s interesting some of the similarities.’’

Is there any sense of vindication for you after this?

PM: “I don’t think vindication is what I would say. I would say I’m generally happy that the top players who are really driving the Tour and creating the interest are being listened to. And what they are doing for the Tour is being valued now. I’m happy to see that happen.’’

Can you cite any specific instances in which you spoke to the previous commissioner, Finchem, or the current one, Monahan, about these various issues?

PM: “I don’t think it’s necessary for me to go there now. It really doesn’t matter. What’s in the past is in the past. I’m moving on. I’m very happy with where I’m at. I’m very happy with the fluidity of LIV. Their ability to listen and implement ideas at a very quick rate is exciting to me. I’m really happy with where things are headed. I just don’t want to go back and relive that.’’

Could these changes—had they emerged a year ago, two years ago—swayed your thinking on the viability of a startup league?

PM: “It was stated very clearly that nothing was going to happen. Unless there was leverage, nothing was going to change. And all players should be appreciative of what LIV is doing. The players on LIV for the opportunity they are getting. And the PGA Tour for the leverage that was provided to get these changes done.’’

Have you heard from any players either to thank you or to acknowledge that you had some underlying points that were valid.

PM: “Yes, numerous. And I'm very appreciative. They are from both sides. I think players on both sides of LIV and the PGA Tour are appreciative of what is happening. Every player is benefiting.’’

You are undoubtedly aware of the players meeting at the BMW Championship led by Tiger and Rory. Did anything like that ever occur to that degree with you?

PM: “No, despite multiple efforts by multiple players. No. I don’t think anything like that would have happened without the leverage that LIV Golf has provided. There was no leverage. There were no other options.’’

Having been a big part of the Tour for 30 years and done a lot during that time, you are in a different situation than most guys in that you are a lifetime member. Do you still see that as a viable reason to get to play if you so choose? (The PGA Tour on Thursday rescinded the membership of LIV Golf players who had not relinquished their PGA Tour membership.)

PM: “I actually appreciate that, but I’m going to refrain from answering that because it kind of falls under the ongoing litigation.’’ (Mickelson has joined six other LIV players plus LIV Golf in suing the PGA Tour for anti-trust violations.)

Having been one of the game’s most popular players for the better part of 30 years, how have you dealt with some of the pushback that you’ve received?

PM: “I think with any significant change, you are going to have disruption. LIV is disruptive. There’s no question. I think that in the end, everything is going to work out the way it should. I think whatever difficulties we may face in the process may be worth it.’’

Do you fear that your legacy is being impacted in any way?

PM: “I feel that my legacy is being built right now. The changes that professional golf are going through I believe are in the best interest for the fans and the players. I feel that it’s being built right now. It hurts to see so much hostility and negativity, for sure. I really believe in the end it’s going to be worth it and I think in the long run everyone is going to come out ahead.

So my legacy is being built. But I also have 30 years of being a part of the Tour and appreciate what the Tour has given me and my family. And those relationships that have been formed and the connections with fans. So many memories and moments and friendships."

Are you concerned that the major championships might attempt to keep LIV players from competing in them?

PM: “I really don’t think that’s going to happen. I believe that the leaders of the majors are really brilliant people who love the game of golf. And I believe they understand how not having many of the top players in the world undermines their events. And how that would hurt the game of golf.’’

What about you personally? Will you be at the Masters in April?

PM: “I believe wholeheartedly I’ll be at Augusta. I thought my conversations with (Masters chairman) Fred Ridley (last spring)—which I will keep between us—were extremely classy. I have the utmost respect for him and the leaders of the majors. There’s been to date no threat at all. I’m not saying that couldn’t change. I just don’t see how that could benefit anybody. I believe they are wise enough and great leaders who can see that.’’

How important are world ranking points and when can they reasonably be added to LIV events?

PM: “Given how many great players are a part of LIV, for LIV events to not have world ranking points would totally undermine the world ranking system. And would force a new world ranking system to come about that was credible. I believe that the world golf rankings organization (OWGR) realizes that and will give world ranking points to LIV events.’’

What about the time frame? It’s been reported that the OWGR sometimes requires a new tour to be in operation for at least a year.

PM: "How would delaying it benefit the world golf rankings? I don’t see how it benefits them. I don’t see how it benefits the majors because some of the top players might not be in the majors. I don’t see the benefit to anybody. I don’t know why that would happen.’’

You’ve played five times since coming back, and for the most part you have struggled. Has it been harder than you thought and where do you think your game is now?

PM: “It’s probably been harder than I thought. But I am motivated. I had a great three weeks. I’m excited about our upcoming five events. I worked really hard these last three weeks to work on my game. I think I’m ready to compete again. I think these next couple of events this week in Boston and in a few weeks in Chicago you’ll see a big difference. We’ll have to see about my scores. I’m motivated. I’m reinvigorated with what LIV Golf has provided. I’ve got a newfound energy to work and practice. I’m going to figure this out. Feel like I’ve made a lot of strides.’’

Do you feel you're at the point where you can move on?

PM: “I said earlier that I was moving on but I probably should have added that I’m incredibly grateful for the PGA Tour. The 30 years I spent on the Tour. The opportunities it provided me, (my wife) Amy, my family. Very appreciative of the PGA Tour. I have moved on. I’m going in a different direction and really trying to help take LIV Golf to where I think it go. What it provides is an opportunity to take world-class golf globally.

“I think we’re in a bit of a grace period before it all works itself out. I believe it will in time. I believe these organizations will come together in time and find a solution. The upside is tremendously high, especially on a global scale. So I’ve moved forward to try and help promote that and LIV Golf.’’

Is there anything you’d have done differently?

PM: “I would have done a lot differently. Absolutely. I have my shortcomings. I will continue to work on those. Will use those as a learning experience. Continue to work on this myself. Try to get better in many ways. I do believe that things are working themselves out the way they should. And I’m very happy the top players are having a voice and being valued for really what they bring to the table and how they drive the game of golf. I would have loved to done things differently, but I’m very happy with the way things are coming about on both sides.’’