Phil Mickelson is skipping a PGA Tour event he’s won three times to play at the controversial Saudi International tournament on the European Tour.
For the first time in 30 years, Mickelson will miss the Waste Management Phoenix Open — where he’s been victorious at TPC Scottsdale in 1996, 2005 and 2013 — to instead play in the Middle East for the first time since a runner-up finish at Abu Dhabi in 2014.
The events are both being held Jan. 30-Feb. 2. The event in Saudi Arabia has drawn criticism for the country’s human rights record.
Mickelson doing part to ‘grow the game’ in Saudi Arabia
Mickelson, who attended Arizona State University, did not participate in the inaugural tournament in 2019 that is supported by the Saudi Arabia government. He said he liked the challenge of the course and wants to do “my bit to grow the game” in the country.
"I am really looking forward to playing in Saudi Arabia in January," Mickelson said in a statement, via ESPN. "I watched Dustin [Johnson] win the title last year and thought the course looked like an interesting challenge. Having so many talented players on show also made it look like a much more established tournament than one in its inaugural year. I have enjoyed my previous visits to the Middle East and am looking forward to playing in a new country and doing my bit to grow the game in the Kingdom."
The 49-year-old golfer’s announcement came alongside Tony Finau, a former Ryder Cup teammate. Others committed to the Saudi Arabia tournament are Johnson, world No. 1 Brooks Koepka, Shane Lowry, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson and Sergio Garcia, who was disqualified last year for a meltdown in which he damaged the greens.
All of them are expected to receive an appearance fee. The purse is $3.5 million.
Mickelson has had a few streaks broken this season. He will not participate in a team event for the first time since 1993 when the Presidents Cup tees off next week. And his 25-year streak of being ranked in the top 50 came to an end Nov. 3 at 1,353 weeks.
Saudi Arabia tournament remains controversial
The European Tour was criticized last year for adding the stop in Saudi Arabia, a country that receives poor human rights rankings by Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. Unlawful attacks in Yemen continue and authorities have cracked down on dissidents, human rights activists, and independent clerics. Per Amnesty International, “Saudi authorities faced little international criticism” for it.
The actions in the country came into a more public view and intenser scrutiny after the October 2018 killing of U.S. journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Khashoggi, who wrote columns for the Washington Post and was critical of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, was living in a self-imposed exile before he was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, per reports,
Johnson told the Associated Press last year before the tournament he is “not a politician; I play golf” and was going to do his job, not support the country. Justin Rose also tried to avoid the controversy. Via Reuters in January 2019:
"It's never straightforward, is it, but I think that obviously we're here to support The European Tour," he told reporters. "For me, I think I can only commend their vision in terms of growing the game of golf.
"I'm not qualified to speak on any other subjects to be honest with you in great detail or authority. Between now and 2030, there's a big push here for golf.
"Hopefully golf is a conduit to bridging the gap between this region and how we perceive golf in the western world."
The WWE also forged ahead despite controversy and hosted its first “Crown Jewel” event in Saudi Arabia in November 2017. It was the first in a 10-year deal with the country and women were at first not allowed to participate. It’s all part of a growing trend of globalization for sports associations that sometimes experience rapid waves, such as the NBA’s controversy in China this year.
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