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Golf: Phil Mickelson defends Saudi payday during media grilling

Golfer says he doesn't condone human rights violations ahead of lucrative Saudi-backed tour
Phil Mickelson during a press conference at the Centurion Club, St Albans (Reuters)
Phil Mickelson during a press conference at the Centurion Club, St Albans (Reuters)
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St Albans, England

Six-time major championship-winning golfer Phil Mickelson appeared to confirm widely circulated rumours that he is being paid $200m to play in the Saudi-sponsored LIV Golf Invitational Series.

The event, which begins on Thursday just outside London, has been accused of being a vehicle for "sportswashing" Saudi Arabia's human rights record.

Speaking at a press conference at the Centurion Club in St Albans, Mickelson told Middle East Eye: "I feel that contract agreements should be private - that doesn't seem to be the case, but they should be."

In February, it emerged that Mickelson had branded the Saudi government "scary motherfuckers," and had said that they had a "horrible record on human rights".

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Mickelson said at the time that he was using the prospect of a Saudi-backed series as leverage to "reshape how the PGA Tour," the organiser of North America's main professional golf tournaments, operates.

Asked on Wednesday why he was now appearing in the Saudi-sponsored tournament, which has shaken up the world of golf and is widely seen as a major rival to the traditional PGA and European tours, Mickelson commented that he had "said and done a lot of things I regret".

"I don't condone human rights violations at all," the US golfer said. "I'm certainly aware of what happened with Jamal Khashoggi, and I think it's terrible," he added, referring to the MEE and Washington Post columnist murdered by Saudi agents in October 2018.

Asked to clarify whether he was "sorry for speaking the truth about the Saudis or sorry about your shameless hypocrisy in taking their money," Mickelson said that he "understood many people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision".

Wearing a cap, sleeveless fleece vest and a golf shirt, Mickelson was grilled over the tournament's Saudi sponsorship. At times he looked, in the words of one veteran reporter present, as if he was "taking part in a hostage video".

But he said again and again that he did not "condone human rights violations," and went on to talk about skiing and travelling to "beautiful places" as part of a recent four-month hiatus.

Speaking after Mickelson, the high-profile English golfers Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood followed him in defending their decision to play at the Saudi-backed tournament. 

"I regard myself as a global golfer," Poulter said. "We've all played in Saudi Arabia already. The European tour has held events there. It's something I've done in the past. I'm trying to provide for my family."

Phil Mickelson of the U.S. and England's Lee Westwood pose with Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan (Reuters)
Phil Mickelson of the US and England's Lee Westwood pose with Newcastle United chairman Yasir Al-Rumayyan (Reuters)

Westwood and Poulter were asked if there was anywhere in the world, including "Vladimir Putin's Russia," they wouldn't play.

"I'm not going to comment on speculation," Poulter replied.

Westwood responded: "I don't need to answer that question," adding that he had not been approached by any human rights organisations over his participation in the series.

Speaking on Tuesday, another participant, the Northern Irish golfer Graeme McDowell, said: "If Saudi Arabia want to use the game of golf as a way to help them to get where they want to be, we're proud to help them on that journey, using the game of golf and the abilities we have to grow the sport."

McDowell described the "Khashoggi situation" as "reprehensible".

The $255m LIV Golf series will feature six more events in 2022, including one in Saudi Arabia. The total prize money on offer this week in the UK is $25m, the most lucrative ever played for on British soil. The winner will take home $4m.

High-profile participants are thought to be commanding vast appearance fees, with former world number one Dustin Johnson, who has resigned from the PGA Tour, said to be receiving $150m. 

LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, himself a golfing legend, said that Tiger Woods had turned down close to $1bn to appear in the tournament. 

The Saudi-backed series is being compared to other breakaway tournaments across sport, including cricket's Indian Premier League and football's recently thwarted European Super League.