The Phil Mickelson Circus rolls into golf’s breakaway LIV Series | Phil Mickelson

Gone is the blue-chip branding, gone is the beaming smile. A subdued, humble – or humbled – Phil Mickelson sat in front of the media for the first time since becoming embroiled in a scandal linked to the very tournament at which he has chosen to make his return. “I’ve made, said and done a lot of things that I regret,” he said. “I’m sorry for that and for the hurt that it has caused a lot of people.” He looked composed, if far from completely comfortable.

Mickelson’s willingness to take the opportunity provided by the LIV Series can be readily explained – starts with “m” and rhymes with honey – but it remains curious when placed against the comments that landed him in so much trouble. When calling Saudi Arabia “scary motherfuckers” while directly referencing human rights abuses and the killing of Jamal Khashoggi, Mickelson admitted he was well aware of who he was dealing with in negotiating to play on this platform.

“I don’t condone human rights violations at all,” Mickelson said. “I’m certainly aware of what has happened with Jamal Khashoggi and I think it’s terrible. I’ve also seen the good the game of golf has done throughout history and I believe that LIV Golf is going to do a lot of good for the game as well. I’m excited about this opportunity. That’s why I’m here.”

So to whom was Mickelson apologising, given he is an integral part of what is widely regarded as a blatant sportswashing episode? “I understand people have very strong opinions and may disagree with my decision,” he said. “I can empathise with that. But at this time, this is an opportunity that gives me a chance to have the most balance in my life and I think this is going to do a lot of good for the game.”

Incongruously, given this was a period when he lost sponsors, missed two major championships and left his reputation trashed, Mickelson reflected on an “awesome” time away from golf. “I have had a four-month break from the game that I have not had in over three decades,” he said. “I’ve had an opportunity to spend time with my wife, Amy, a bunch, to travel parts of the world and spend time at a place we have in Montana skiing, and hike in Sedona, what a beautiful place that is.

Phil Mickelson shanks his second shot on the first hole while playing right-handed, during the pro-am at the Centurion Club on Wednesday.
Phil Mickelson shanks his second shot on the first hole while playing right-handed, during the pro-am at the Centurion Club on Wednesday. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

“It’s given me time to continue some of the work and therapy I’ve been working on in some areas that I’ve been deficient in my life. It’s given me time to reflect on what I want to do going forward or what’s best for me, what’s best for the people I care about.

“I found myself missing the Masters but not wanting to be there. I had not played. I had not touched a club. I wasn’t in a position to be competitive. But I will always love that tournament and if I’m not there I’ll always miss it, but I didn’t have a desire to be there.”

‘Sorry for the hurt’: Mickelson defends Saudi-backed LIV Series but will not quit PGA Tour – video

The sense Mickelson is serving or has served a ban from the PGA Tour has at least been allowed to prevail. “I choose not to speak publicly on PGA Tour issues at this time,” was his answer to that particular question.

When pressed on how he can feasibly represent LIV, an entity Mickelson quite happily stated he was using for “leverage” against the PGA Tour, he said: “I’ve really enjoyed my time on the PGA Tour. I’ve had some incredible experiences, some great memories and I have a lot of strong opinions on things that should and could be a lot better.

“One of the mistakes I’ve made is voicing those publicly. So I will really make an effort to keep those conversations behind closed doors. That’s the way to be the most efficient and get the most out of it.”

The six-time major winner confirmed he had no intention of following the lead of Dustin Johnson, Sergio García and others by resigning his PGA Tour membership. “As a lifetime member, I’m not required to play 15 events,” he said. “I don’t have to play any; I can play one. I don’t see the reason for me to give that up.”

The 51-year-old touched on gambling, once a problem for him. “I’ve had hundreds of hours of therapy and I’ve worked tirelessly for many years,” he said. “I feel really good about where I’m at. I’m proud of the work I’ve done. So I’ve addressed the issue and will continue to do so the rest of my life.”

With that, it was off to a pro-am where Mickelson was seen in the company of the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. The Mickelson Circus will not roll out of town anytime soon; he will play in next week’s US Open.

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