Phil Mickelson says he does not condone human rights violations in Saudi Arabia on the eve of the inaugural event of the divisive LIV Golf Invitational Series funded by the Gulf kingdom.
The six-time Major winner confirmed earlier this week he had signed up to play in the breakaway series, teeing off at the Centurion Club outside London on Thursday.
The American, who became the oldest Major winner by capturing the 2021 PGA Championship, also said he plans to play at the Majors, including next week’s US Open.
Mickelson (51) has not played since the publication of comments in February in which he criticised the US PGA Tour and LIV Golf’s Saudi backers.
In an interview with author Alan Shipnuck, the left-hander said LIV Golf was an opportunity to gain leverage over the PGA Tour.
However, Mickelson described the new venture’s backers as “scary” with a “horrible record on human rights”, noting the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in a Saudi consulate.
Saudi agents killed and dismembered Khashoggi, an insider turned critic, in the kingdom’s Istanbul consulate in October 2018. His remains have never been found.
Fallout from the killing continues to mar Saudi Arabia’s image, especially in the United States.
Amnesty International has said the LIV series is an example of Saudi Arabia attempting to “sportswash” its human rights record.
Mickelson, who headlines a field of 48 players at the $25-million, 54-hole LIV Golf Invitational London, faced a grilling at an eve-of-tournament news conference on Wednesday.
The American, who entered the room at the Centurion Club in St Albans wearing dark glasses, was asked what he meant by describing the Saudis as “scary”.
“Certainly I have made, said and done a lot of things I regret and I’m sorry for that and for the hurt that it’s caused a lot of people,” he said.
“I don’t condone human rights violations at all, nobody here does, any throughout the world, and I’m certainly aware of what has happened with Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible.
“I’ve also seen the good that the game of golf has done throughout history and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good for the game as well and I’m excited about this opportunity.”
Players opting into LIV Golf have done so despite PGA Tour warnings of disciplinary action.
While a number of players have resigned from the Tour in order to compete in the LIV Golf events, including two-time Major winner Dustin Johnson, Mickelson said he had no intention of following suit.
“I worked really hard to earn a lifetime exemption,” said the 45-time winner on the Tour. “And I don’t want to give that up. I don’t believe I should have to.”
Mickelson refused to confirm or deny if he had been suspended, or currently was suspended, by the PGA Tour.
He also declined to confirm if he was receiving $200m to compete in the LIV Golf events, but his answer indicated that the reported amount could be accurate.
“I feel that contract agreements should be private,” Mickelson said. “Doesn’t seem to be the case, but it should be.”
Players including Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tiger Woods have all committed themselves to the PGA Tour, but Ian Poulter believes top golfers could change their minds in future.
“I definitely see other top players watching on this week and wanting to be a part of it,” said the Englishman, who is in the field at the Centurion Club.
“There’s a huge investment coming into the game of golf and sport in general of which definitely other players will be looking in with interest this week, and I think they will want to come and see what it’s all about.”
The LIV series, which comprises eight tournaments this year, is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
Players will compete as individuals and teams for eye-watering purses of $25m in all seven regular-season events, played over three rounds with no cut.
The eighth and final event will be a team championship, with a total prize fund of $50m.
© Agence France-Presse