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'We all have our flaws': At Senior PGA, exiled Phil Mickelson is missed

BENTON HARBOR, Mich. — The Missing Man isn't quite the story this week that it was last week.

But Phil Mickelson's continued absence from the golfing world — he didn't defend his PGA Championship at Southern Hills, and he's not playing the Senior PGA Championship at Harbor Shores in western Michigan, and there's no telling when or if he'll be back — remains tough to ignore.

Mickelson hasn't played a competitive golf tournament since early February, when excerpts from an explosive biography on Lefty were dropped, in which he sympathized with the new Saudi Arabia-backed golf tour, dismissing the Saudis' human-rights atrocities — specifically, the murder of a Washington Post journalist and the killing of gays — while also accusing of greed on the PGA Tour which has lined Mickelson's pockets to the tune of nearly $100 million over his three decades as a pro.

The question The Detroit News posed to some of the notable names in this week's 156-player field: Does Mickelson return to the game? And if so, how and when?

"Well, that's a tough question, just because I just don't know, really — I've heard stuff that's going on in his personal life, but I don't know if it's true, I don't know for sure," said Tom Gillis, a Lake Orion native who, from his years playing professional golf in Europe, on the PGA Tour and on the Champions Tour, is among the most tuned-in golfers to the behind-the-scenes drama.

"So, I don't really know totally what he's dealing with. Obviously, it's fairly profound if he's not playing at all. I don't know if he's suspended; none of us know.

"I just hope he gets everything in order and figures this whole thing out, because he's good for the Tour. He's just like any human being. We all have our flaws. I just wish him well, either way."

Mickelson, 51, arguably among the top-five most-popular golfers who've ever lived, was at the very top of his professional life one year ago this month, when he won the PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, making him in the oldest major-winner ever. It was his sixth major championship.

Now, he's approaching four months of being completely out of the spotlight, with no end in sight.

In mid-February, he issued a two-page Twitter post that was, in part, an apology for the comments he made to journalist Alan Shipnuck about the Saudi tour. All we've heard from him, or more accurately his team, since was his representatives signing up him for the PGA Championship, from which he eventually pulled out. Shipnuck's book, an unauthorized biography detailing all the good, bad and ugly with Mickelson — including a massive gambling addiction that has cost him tens of millions of dollars over the years, and is believed to have left him straining financially in recent years — dropped during PGA Championship week.

His absence was much more of a story last week, with David Duval, making his Senior PGA Championship debut this week, addressing the saga in a blunt way during his analyst work on ESPN.

"I think the remarks disparage everybody who came before him who built this wonderful, charitable product that does so much good, provides such a life for so many people and so many players and their families. That extends in their ability to do charitable works as well," Duval said last week on ESPN. "You know, having just a statement sent out there, that you can control, answers nothing. Unfortunately, as you look at it, to me, he’s dug a hole that I struggle to see him getting out of. I don’t see the exit strategy, especially when you don’t address what it is you’re saying and what you meant by the words you had to say."

Mickelson's words about the Saudis, and their flush-with-ridiculous-cash tour, have drawn strong rebukes from several PGA Tour stars, including notably from Tiger Woods. Many players publicly distanced themselves from the Saudi tour in the immediate aftermath of Mickelson's comments.

Duval said the comments also diminished what Mickelson accomplished at the 2021 PGA.

"What he accomplished last year at Kiawah, you could argue, might be the greatest victory in professional golf there’s ever been," Duval said on ESPN. "Historical, unimaginable, certainly not anything that anybody expected to see have happening again and not to have that victory march, if you will — that, if you want to call it, a sendoff, whatever it may be — that he so rightly earned at Kiawah, but then he just seemingly threw away a number of months back with his thoughts and his actions is just incredibly disappointing."

A rocky year

Mickelson's last year has been filled with drama, on and off the course. After winning the PGA Championship, he arrived in Detroit in July to play the Rocket Mortgage Classic for the first time, and spent more time that week bashing the local media over a Detroit News story about his past ties to a local bookie than he did making birdies. But he also drew big crowds, as Mickelson always does, thanks to his fan interaction. He gives hundreds of thumbs-ups each round, and he signs more autographs than anybody in the game.

He's still got plenty of fans, and there's the belief that those he lost, he can certainly win back.

The United States public, if nothing else, has proven to be very forgiving, if and when Mickelson wants that.

"Let's hope so," Colin Montgomerie said Wednesday, on the eve of the start of the Champions Tour's second major of the season, and the first in Benton Harbor since 2018. "Let's hope he comes back to the PGA Tour. The PGA Tour made Phil Mickelson, and let's hope Phil Mickelson comes back to the PGA Tour, where it started and where it should finish."

Said Bernhard Langer, like Montgomerie and Mickelson a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame: "I don't have the answers. I just feel very sad for him, and he's one of the all-time greats. I just feel bad for him to be in the position he's in right now. ... Phil was great for the game of golf, and hopefully, he will be great again sometime in the near future."

The last time Mickelson played on the PGA Tour was in late January, at his hometown Farmers Insurance Open in San Diego, where he missed the cut. The following week, he played in Saudi Arabia rather than on the PGA Tour at Pebble Beach, a decision that earned him a big payday, but drew critics. He hasn't played the Champions Tour since October; he's won three of his four Champions Tour starts and was expected to provide a boon to the 50-and-older circuit with his occasional presence.

Now, it remains to be seen whether Mickelson, a 45-time winner on the PGA Tour whose comments also cost him millions in endorsement deals, is next seen on the PGA Tour or Champions Tour, or in the Saudi-funded LIV tour, which starts in London from June 9-11, and includes several stops in the States, including one at Bedminster, N.J., opposite this year's Rocket Mortgage Classic.

Mickelson earlier this month formally requested a waiver from the PGA Tour to play the big-buck Saudi series — several players have been offered 10-figure signing bonuses and nine-figure annual guarantees to play the tour, most declining for fear of the backlash from the PGA Tour and the fans. The PGA Tour has officially declined such waivers and threatened lifetime bans for anyone who opts to play the rival.

There's a debate whether the PGA Tour's stance will hold up in court, but as Mickelson has learned, it's holding up just fine in the court of public opinion.

"People want him back for sure — he's just a great draw," Gillis said on the putting green Wednesday morning at a rainy Harbor Shores — which, by the way, sits just nine miles west of Point O'Woods, where, in 1991, Mickelson won the famed Western Amateur. "I think Phil's always been somewhat strong on his opinions, and there's obviously a difference in opinion from what Tiger said about how they believe the (PGA) Tour should be run. And (Phil) probably dug in too deep (with his comments).

"But he'll be back. He's not going to go away."