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Phil Mickelson skips PGA championship after he made controversial comments

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

Today in Tulsa, Okla., golf's PGA Championship gets underway without its defending champion. A year ago, then-50-year-old Phil Mickelson dazzled the sports world by winning the PGA and becoming the oldest player to win a major. But Mickelson remains in a self-imposed exile from golf after making inflammatory comments about a new tour financed by money from Saudi Arabia. Joining me to discuss is NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Hi, Tom.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Good morning, Leila.

FADEL: Good morning. So the PGA will be Mickelson's second straight no-show at a major championship. He withdrew from the Masters in April. Remind us what happened, what prompted this.

GOLDMAN: Well, I'll offer you a little background first. Phil Mickelson was talking to a writer about the LIV Golf Series - that's L-I-V - LIV Golf Series - backed by Saudi Arabia. It's seen as a competitor league to the long-running PGA Tour. It's offering huge prize money. And Mickelson supports it because he thinks it could create leverage for those like him who want changes on the PGA Tour - a tour, by the way, that's made Mickelson a very rich man. Now, critics say the LIV Series is another example of Saudi sportswashing, using sports to improve the image of an authoritarian nation. And Mickelson's comments to the author essentially acknowledge that. He said - and I'm quoting - "the Saudis are scary to get involved with. We know they killed Khashoggi" - talking about Washington Post reporter Jamal Khashoggi murdered in 2018. And Mickelson continued, "they have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because" he said, "it's an opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates."

FADEL: And what was the reaction?

GOLDMAN: Anger from some fellow PGA pros. Some of Mickelson's sponsors dropped him. So in February, after the comments came out, he apologized. He said in a statement his words were reckless and he would self-reflect and learn from it. He also said he needed time away from the game, and that's where he's at right now. Skipping the PGA makes him just the fifth major champion since 1960 to not defend a title and the only one to do so by choice.

FADEL: But this is pretty dramatic. I mean, Phil Mickelson has been a very popular champion, right?

GOLDMAN: Yeah, absolutely. You know, you go back a year to when he won the PGA, walking up the final fairway and hundreds of fans streaming onto the course following him, it was a scene reminiscent of when Arnold Palmer played and was so widely loved. Mickelson's connection to golf fans has been compared to Palmer's, a people's champion, kind of. And for him to have removed himself from all this, it is strange. Players gathered in Oklahoma for the PGA are saying it's sad and Mickelson should be there. He disagrees.

FADEL: Now, it must be big news because it's even overshadowing Tiger Woods. He's continuing his comeback from last year's serious car crash. What can we expect from Woods at the PGA championship?

GOLDMAN: Well, yeah, he made a dramatic comeback at the Masters last month. And at the end of that tournament, he was limping pretty badly on a leg doctors considered amputating after his crash. But this week, he said he's gained strength. The course in Tulsa isn't as hilly as Augusta, where the Masters was. Woods says he thinks he can win. He always says that. But he's still a long shot; not enough to scare one unnamed better in Las Vegas, though, who reportedly plopped down $20,000 in cash on Tiger, a win that will pay off a million-plus if Tiger wins. Is that bet crazy? We shall see.

FADEL: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Thank you, Tom.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.