Phil Mickelson won’t escape legacy despite U.S. Open appearance


BROOKLINE, Mass. — More than anything, Phil Mickelson has spent his life embracing the art of the escape. No golfer since Arnold Palmer has attacked an impossible set of circumstances with such blind belief in his ability to make his ball do whatever he tells it to do. 

That’s why the fans always loved him. As flawed as he was a gambling addict blowing through tens of millions in earnings, Phil the Thrill’s go-for-broke style on the course made him a player people paid to see. Whether he was winning a major or throwing one away, whether he was bouncing his drive off a Winged Foot hospitality tent or whistling his approach around an Augusta National tree, Mickelson endeared himself to the ham-and-eggers in the gallery who lived a life of cautious choices. 

But Monday, when he made his first public appearance on American soil since January, Mickelson did not look or sound like someone about to Houdini his way around this nine-figure mess of his own design. He faced the news media at the U.S. Open without the usual conviction in his eye or steadiness in his voice. Lefty had sold his competitive soul to the LIV Golf circuit and the Saudis behind it for the reported price of $200 million, and that’s a lot harder to explain than a failure to get up and down from the greenside rough. 

Mickelson repeatedly said that he respected the opinions of those strongly opposed to his decision to do business with a nation that has an abhorrent human-rights record, and that he has “the deepest sympathy and the deepest empathy” for the family members of those lost on 9/11, an unspeakable mass murder perpetrated by 19 terrorists, 15 of them from Saudi Arabia. 

Phil Mickelson has long-embraced being an escape artist.
Phil Mickelson has long-embraced being an escape artist.

He sounded nervous and appeared unnerved by some of the questioning. Deep down, while packing a fatter wallet in his back pocket, the escape artist has likely come to the realization that there’s no escaping this one. 

Will the adoring masses now abandon him? 

“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.” 

Of course, Mickelson is hardly the only prominent American golfer to absorb a PGA Tour suspension in the LIV Golf exodus — Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are major champions too, and big names to passionate fans of the sport. But Mickelson is different. He is a commercial pitchman recognizable to people who aren’t golf fans, and to some who aren’t even sports fans. 

Though his accomplishments are dwarfed by those of Tiger Woods (whose aren’t?), the 45-time tour winner and six-time major champ could go down among the 10 greatest players ever. So when LIV golfers were pressed on the brutal slaying of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Mickelson was front and center. When 9/11 families wrote to the American players expressing outrage over their partnership with the Saudis, Mickelson was the first player addressed in the letter. 

“How can you live with yourself when you take money from an organization that killed 3,000 people on 9/11?” Doug Mello, the father of American Airlines Flight 11 victim Chris Mello of Rye, told The Post by phone. 

Phil Mickelson answers questions from the media at the U.S. Open on Monday.
Phil Mickelson answers questions from the media at the U.S. Open on Monday.
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Mello wasn’t part of the coalition of families that wrote the letter to the player, but he shares its sentiment. He’s been playing golf and competing in pro-ams for a half century, and now runs an annual Westchester tournament in honor of his son, a former high school football star and Princeton rugby player who was upgraded into business class on Flight 11, putting him among the hijackers. 

Informed that Mickelson had expressed his sympathy and empathy for the victims’ families, Doug Mello told The Post, “It’s too little, too late. … He seems to be trying to weasel his way out of this. I have no empathy for Phil and the other guys whatsoever. I fight like hell to keep my son’s memory alive, and I’ll go to my grave saying, ‘Don’t ever forget.’ And here, 21 years later, you have some superb golfers in decline who are just out for the money. Come on, just do the right thing. If you turn your back on your country, good luck down the road.” 

Before he gets down the road, Mickelson will tee off Thursday on his 52nd birthday in pursuit of the one major trophy he has yet to win. This will be his 30th U.S. Open, staged 13 months after he shocked the world and won the PGA Championship. He skipped the Masters and PGA this year while in hiding, only to reemerge overseas last week in a LIV debut that was, at best, dispiriting to those still hoping he can finally win his national championship. 

“It’s going to be a brutal test of golf,” Mickelson said. 

Phil Mickelson swings during the final day of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational.
Phil Mickelson swings during the final day of the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational.
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Phil Mickelson is escorted away on a golf cart after his press conference.
Phil Mickelson is escorted away on a golf cart after his press conference on Monday.
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It’s going to be a brutal test of plenty more than that, whether the Boston fans turn on Lefty or not. Mickelson acted like a man Monday who knows there’s a series of ominous storms ahead. 

Right after his news conference ended, he was part of a two-cart, two-police-officer motorcade ride straight to his courtesy car. At 1:24 p.m., Phil Mickelson wheeled his white Lexus SUV out of the players’ lot, with no clear escape in sight.

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