As wild and unexpected and euphoric as Phil Mickelson’s victory was at the 2021 PGA Championship, this is even more surreal.
Mickelson – by all accounts healthy physically, if not mentally – will not defend his PGA title next week at Southern Hills, a year after he became, at age 50, golf’s oldest major champion in a stirring performance for the ages.
The PGA of America announced Friday, at about 5 p.m. ET, that Mickelson had withdrawn from the event. “We would have welcomed him to participate,” the PGA said in a statement, but now the year’s second major can go off without the circus that a Mickelson appearance would have brought. Tiger and Jordan, Scottie and Rory – the stage is now yours.
It’s the first time since the 2015 Open (McIlroy) that a major champion hasn’t returned the following year to defend his title, and just the fourth time overall since 1960.
Then again, never has there been a set of circumstances like this.
Mickelson isn’t recovering from a kickabout accident or knee surgery. His wounds are less visible: his ego bruised, his reputation tarnished, his future muddied.
Outspoken about so much for so long, Mickelson hasn’t been heard from publicly since his non-apology on Feb. 24, a few days after he disparaged both the PGA Tour and the Saudis in comments made to author Alan Shipnuck. Last month, his manager said that Mickelson had registered for the PGA and U.S. Open, as a matter of procedure, and also had requested a release (since denied) to play in the first LIV Golf Invitational next month outside London. It hinted at a return, but apparently he's not yet ready – to face his peers, to answer to the media, to reenter the public arena.
Now that Mickelson has bowed out of the PGA, questions about his motivation to join the Saudi-backed circuit – as well as his massive gambling losses – remain unanswered. And so attention turns to the inaugural LIV event, especially if Mickelson, as has been reported by The Telegraph, received $30 million upfront to play in the series. Delaying his competitive return until the June 9-11 kickoff tournament would be a massive boon for the upstart league that has suffered a series of false starts, setbacks and PR nightmares. With one commitment, Mickelson could defy the mighty PGA Tour while creating massive interest for the rival league – what better way to say sorry?
It’s unfathomable that we’re even contemplating that scenario. It's unfortunate that his epic one-off at Kiawah Island will be viewed in an entirely different historical context. And it's sad that one of the game’s all-time greats has blundered his way to this point.
In the delirium of that Sunday afternoon at Kiawah, after outlasting the best major field in golf, after being lauded for his remarkable longevity, Mickelson spoke proudly of his insatiable competitive fire.
“My desire to play is the same,” he said. “I’ve never been driven by exterior things. I’ve always been intrinsically motivated because I love to compete. I love playing the game. I love having opportunities to play against the best at the highest level. That’s what drives me.”
Fifty-one weeks later, now shamed, humbled and perhaps soon defiant, it appears that’s no longer true.