Phil Mickelson OK with criticism for playing in Saudi Arabia

LA QUINTA, Calif. -- Despite the criticism, Phil Mickelson said he is committed to playing the Saudi International tournament on the European Tour next week and is looking forward to the trip to the Middle East.

Mickelson, who is skipping a longtime staple on his schedule, the Waste Management Phoenix Open the same week, told ESPN at the American Express that he understood the political ramifications of his commitment and expected there to be criticism.

"I knew that was going to be the case,'' Mickelson, 49, said in his first public comments on the issue. "I weighed that in my decision. But I still want to go.''

The World Golf Hall of Famer who has won 44 PGA Tour titles is skipping the Phoenix event for the first time in 30 years to take appearance fee money from the Saudi Arabia government-backed tournament that begins on Jan. 30. The European Tour came under heavy criticism for agreeing to schedule an event in Saudi Arabia when it was first announced due to the country's reported human rights abuses.

The various tours go to other places that have poor human rights records, but the Saudi event came under intense scrutiny after the killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, a United States resident, in October of 2018. The Washington Post writer had been critical of Prince Mohammed bin Salman. He was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul and the CIA concluded that the crown prince personally ordered his murder.

Unlike other tournaments played in places such as China, the Saudi event is funded by the Saudi government.

Dustin Johnson won the inaugural tournament last year and will be back to defend along with No. 1-ranked Brooks Koepka, Justin Rose, Sergio Garcia, Tony Finau, Patrick Reed, Bryson DeChambeau and Henrik Stenson. Last year, Rose said, "I'm not a politician, I'm a golfer,'' when asked about playing.

Mickelson's announced participation in December brought on a good bit of social media negativity as well. All of the high-profile players in the field are receiving hefty appearance fees from the Saudi government for their participation. Tiger Woods last month said he twice has turned down an offer to play in the tournament.

"I understand the politics behind it,'' Woods said of the controversy last month at the Hero World Challenge. "But also the game of golf can help heal a lot of that too. It can help grow it. And also a lot of top players are going to be playing there that particular week.

"It's traditionally not a golf hotbed, the Middle East. But it has grown quite a bit. I remember going to Dubai for my very first time and seeing maybe two or three buildings in the skyline. Now there is a New York City skyline. Again, golf has grown. There were only a few courses when I went to Dubai and now they're everywhere. Same with Abu Dhabi, and maybe eventually in Saudi Arabia.''

The European Tour plays a three-tournament Middle East swing that started last week in Abu Dhabi, continues this week in Dubai and then heads to Saudi Arabia. In March, the tour returns for events in Oman and Qatar and plays its season-ending Tour Championship in Dubai.

The purse for the Saudi event is just $3.5 million. Organizers have elected to pour additional funds into attracting name players through appearance fees, which are not allowed on the PGA Tour. Woods turned down in excess of $3 million and Mickelson is believed to be receiving a figure of more than $2 million.

"I knew that criticism would come with this,'' Mickelson said. "But I'm excited to go. I'm looking forward to it. I just figured that would be the case. I feel good in the sense that I've supported the Phoenix Open for 30 years. I've turned down opportunities for 20 years now to go over to different parts of the world. I'm at a point now where I want to take advantage of it. I want to go see it."

Mickelson played the Abu Dhabi event in 2011 and 2014. When his commitment to Saudi Arabia was first announced on Dec. 2, Mickelson explained on Twitter: "After turning down opportunities to go to the Middle East for many years, I'm excited to go play and see a place in the world I've never been. I understand those who are upset or disappointed. You'll be okay. I'm excited to experience this for the first time.''

Mickelson has played the Phoenix event 30 times going back to his amateur days, including 29 in a row. He has three victories and 11 top-10 finishes. He is coming off a missed cut at the American Express, where he was the tournament's host with a new title sponsor.

"I think we're going to build on this first year,'' said Mickelson, who discounted any distractions impacting his play.

"I'm further along than I've been in the past [at this time of year], no matter what it showed this week,'' he said. "I think I can drive the ball in play, I know I can and I'm looking forward to that challenge at Torrey.''

Mickelson is returning after a one-year absence to his hometown event, the Farmers Insurance Open, at Torrey Pines near San Diego. He will leave immediately after for Saudi Arabia, then return to California to defend his lone 2019 title at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Since winning at Pebble Beach, Mickelson has just one top-20 finish and finished the year ranked outside of the top 50 in the world for the first time in more than 25 years. He is currently 79th.