AUGUSTA, Ga. — Gary Player had a “special thought.”
Phil Mickelson is not at this year’s Masters, pulling out late last month in the aftermath of controversial comments on the new, Saudi Arabia-funded golf league. But Player is here. And when he, Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson, the honorary starters, were asked what advice they’d give the embattled six-time major champion, Player became animated.
“I have a special thought on Phil Mickelson,” said Player, who wore a Golf Saudi logo on the collar of his sweater. “I think we live in a time now when we are such a judgmental society, a litigious society, a critical society, where people get crucified. The greatest PR man on the golf tour in the last five or X amount of years has been Phil Mickelson. He has been the ideal man for a sponsor, for professional golf, for the public, the way he’s handled the public, with dignity and with love.
“And he makes a mistake, which every one of you in this room have made a damn mistake. We all have. And he said he’s sorry. But even the Lord God will forgive you of your inequities if you ask for forgiveness. And he made a mistake, and for everybody to be — I’ve heard him. I said, hold your head up high. You’ve made a mistake. Everybody makes a mistake.”
Neither Nicklaus nor Watson answered the question. Player’s response came after Mickelson’s comments in an excerpt for a forthcoming biography by Alan Shipnuck, published Feb. 17 on firepitcollective.com, and his subsequent apology. (Shipnuck has disputed Mickelson’s characterization of their conversation.)
The excerpt detailed Mickelson’s involvement with LIV Golf, the new company headed by Greg Norman that is expected to launch the new golf tour this year and is backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Saudi Arabia government. Speaking to Shipnuck, Mickelson called his new partners “scary motherf———s,” and he also insisted PGA Tour media rights be redistributed more equitably to Tour members.
Five days later, Mickelson apologized over social media and said he would be “taking some time away.” On Wednesday, Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley revealed that Mickelson texted him a few weeks ago that he would not be playing at this year’s Masters.
“I have made a lot of mistakes in my life and many have been shared with the public,” Mickelson wrote in his statement. “My intent was never to hurt anyone and I’m so sorry to the people I have negatively impacted. This has always been about supporting the players and the game and I appreciate all the people who have given me the benefit of the doubt.
“Despite my belief that some changes have already been made within the overall discourse, I know I need to be accountable. For the past 31 years I have lived a very public life and I have strived to live up to my own expectations, be the role model the fans deserve, and be someone that inspires others. I’ve worked to compete at the highest level, be available to media, represent my sponsors with integrity, engage with volunteers and sign every autograph for my incredible fans. I have experienced many successful and rewarding moments that I will always cherish, but I have often failed myself and others too. The past 10 years I have felt the pressure and stress slowly affecting me at a deeper level. I know I have not been my best and desperately need some time away to prioritize the ones I love most and work on being the man I want to be.”
On Thursday, Player said Mickelson “should go on with his life.”
“I think it’s pitiful,” Player said. “I actually made a statement on television. I said, If there’s nobody that hasn’t made a mistake, I’d like to invite anybody in the world to have lunch with me at Augusta, and if you haven’t made a mistake, I’ll have lunch with you, but I’ll have lunch on my own. It’s amazing. From the epitome of perfection, he’s down there being crucified. It’s not right. That’s my opinion.
“He said terrible things, but we all make mistakes.”