Golfer Phil Mickelson met with reporters for the first time in four months and ― spoiler alert ― it was awkward.
Mickelson was in London to promote the inaugural tournament of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series that begins Thursday, and reporters grilled him on whether he was concerned that his involvement would “tarnish” his legacy by making him appear to be a “Saudi stooge.”
Previously, Mickelson had reportedly characterized representatives of the Saudi government as “scary motherfuckers,” but agreed to support a Saudi-funded alternative golf league to challenge the power of the PGA Tour “dictatorship.”
He also admitted the golf league was a way of “sportswashing” a repressive regime to make it more palatable.
Mickelson later apologized for the “reckless” comments and lost many sponsors as a result.
But it was still a hot topic when Mickelson appeared before the press on Wednesday, which is why he began with an apology.
“There are a lot of things that I regret, and I am sorry for the hurt that it’s caused a lot of people,” Mickelson told reporters. “I don’t condone human rights violations at all. Nobody here does, throughout the world.”
Mickelson then referenced the October 2018 murder and dismemberment of reporter Jamal Khashoggi that was linked to Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and said, “I think it’s terrible.”
But that didn’t stop reporters from grilling him.
“Can you just clarify what you’re apologizing for?” one journalist asked. “Is it, ‘Sorry for speaking the truth about the Saudis,’ or are you sorry about the shameless hypocrisy of taking their money anyway?”
Mickelson ― who is reportedly getting $200 million from the Saudis ― spun the question away.
“I understand that many people have very strong opinions and many disagree with my decision, and I can empathize with that,’’ he said. “But at this time, this is an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life going forward and I think this is going to do a lot of good for the game.’’
That didn’t stop the hard questions.
“Isn’t there a danger that you’re going to be seen as a tool of sportswashing, an attempt to try and improve an image of a human rights abusing regime through sport? And that ultimately, you could be seen as a Saudi stooge, and that could tarnish your legacy. Are you comfortable with that?” the reporter asked.
Mickelson insisted he didn’t “condone human rights violations,” adding, “I don’t know how I can be any more clear.”
Mickelson isn’t the only golfing great who has run into challenges trying to defend their involvement with the Saudis.
Last month, Greg Norman was condemned by Khashoggi’s widow for minimizing the killing by saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”