Officials of the Waste Management Phoenix Open took the high road Tuesday when asked about Phil Mickelson’s decision to skip their upcoming tournament in order to play in the Saudi International.
Phil’s been a “great ambassador for us,” they said during a news conference to promote the 2020 tournament. Phil’s been a “very, very special part of our tournament for 30 years,” they said.
Both are true. Mickelson owes the Phoenix Open nothing. He’s played in it 30 times and holds or shares a part of 15 tournament scoring records.
“It’s hard to hold a guy down, or at fault, for making a decision like that,” said tournament director Tim Woods.
No, it’s really not, because this isn’t only about Mickelson deciding to skip the Phoenix Open for just the second time since 1989.
It’s about choosing to play in the Saudi International instead. An “invitation” to play in that tournament includes a hefty appearance fee. And all an athlete has to do for that fee is play a little golf and valet park his conscience.
The Saudis have a dubious human rights record, to say the least, but enough money to get people to look the other way.
The Saudi International debuted a year ago, just a few months after Jamal Khashoggi, a journalist who worked for the Washington Post, was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey,
Khashoggi entered the consulate and never left. His body reportedly was dismembered with bone saws and possibly disposed of with acid.
There’s little doubt in the intelligence community that it was premeditated murder by the Saudi Government and the regime of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.
The royal family has denied those allegations.
But, hey, on to golf!
Last year, the Saudi Invitational featured several of the best American players, including Dustin Johnson (who won it), Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau.
Back then, they didn’t want to touch the touchy subject of the Saudis possibly killing and dismembering a journalist who lived in the United States.
“I’m not a politician, I’m a pro golfer,” Rose said, according to Golfweek.
“I’m not going to get into it,” said Koepka.
“It’s my job to play golf,” said Johnson.
Professional athletes, especially ones in individual sports, have a long history of being enticed by money. Come to think of it, that’s probably true of most of us.
And, granted, boycotting countries because of how they treat dissenting voices can be difficult. Truth often is elusive, and a standard can be difficult to set. If you don’t compete in Saudi Arabia, does that mean you also don’t go to China?
But judging by the growth of the Saudi International, more golfers are deciding that the easiest path is to have no standard at all.
This year’s field will be even stronger. In addition to Mickelson, Tony Finau, who regularly plays in the Phoenix Open, told the Saudi Gazette he is playing there.
“I’ve always believed that to be considered a world-class player, you must compete in premier tournaments around the world,” Finau said.
That’s silly, of course, since winning a major will pretty much cement a player’s status as “world class.”
Mickelson’s comments to the Saudi Times were equally inane.
“I have enjoyed my previous visits to the Middle East and am looking forward to playing in a new country and doing my bit to grow the game in the Kingdom.”
How benevolent of him. I’d have more respect for Mickelson if he said something like this:
“Look, I turn 50 next year. My biggest pay days are behind me, so I wasn’t about to turn down the appearance fee I’m getting for from the Saudis.”
Mickelson’s decision has earned him a considerable criticism for the obvious money grab, and he responded on twitter.
The Thunderbirds, the civic group that sponsors the Phoenix Open, obviously hopes that’s not the case.
But if it is, the tournament will be fine. It’s never been about one golfer. Hell, most of the time it’s not even about the golf.
So, enjoy trying to “grow the game in the Kingdom,” Phil. Hope the valet remembers where he parked your conscience when it’s time to come home.
Reach Kent Somers at Kent.Somers@gannett.com. Follow him on twitter @kentsomers. Hear Somers every Monday and Friday at 7:30 a.m. on The Drive with Jody Oehler on Fox Sports 910 AM.