BROOKLINE, Mass. — The chain-link fence to the left of the driving range had been bent to below eye level. Fans in attendance at The Country Club on Tuesday wanted to get a glimpse of Phil Mickelson while he warmed up for his practice round — his return to a stateside course after a four-month hiatus. Some were quiet, whispering among each other about the democratic and moral implications of what Mickelson had done by joining the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series. Others were loud, calling out to Mickelson directly about how glad they were to have him back. One fan stood out: “How’s the pockets looking?!” the fan yelled. Mickelson smiled, gave a thumbs up and pulled out a wad of cash. Laughs ensued.
If Monday’s press conference was Mickelson playing the part of apologist, expressing how much “respect” he had for everyone as questions about LIV, the Saudis and 9/11 were darted at him, then what transpired once Mickelson entered the ropes from Tuesday afternoon and through Thursday’s first round, was Mickelson reverting back to the sport’s ultimate showman. That is, until he actually started playing golf.
In his first round of the year at a major championship, Mickelson shot an 8-over 78, which left him tied for 145th. His round was only good enough to beat two amateurs.
Even as he teed off to a swath of cheers, words of encouragement and well wishes, it quickly became clear that Mickelson’s greatest public-relations asset — the ability to step inside the ropes, divert attention from his LIV dealings and become a beloved figure again –also serves to expose his harsh reality: His golf game can’t hang at a major championship.
“I really enjoyed the test; I think it’s just a spectacular golf course,” Mickelson said after his round to a few media in the player parking lot before referencing his 33rd-place finish at LIV’s 48-man London event. “I just really struggled with the putter the first few holes, just like I did last week.”
Mickelson is among the 17 suspended golfers on the PGA Tour, which means major golf may be all he has left outside of LIV. And as Jon Rahm said Tuesday, LIV is “not a real golf tournament.”
Over the course of nine holes Tuesday alongside Rahm and fellow LIV member Kevin Na, Mickelson gave more waves, nods and thumbs up to the crowd than he made golf swings. At one point, he even flexed his calves when one fan asked him to. Once strokes started counting on Thursday, Mickelson still played to the crowd, but it was hard to do it with the same attitude. He struggled to generate any success, especially as some fans got more comfortable wading into LIV remarks or even comments alluding to his self-admitted issues with gambling.
“Phil, Celtics, -3.5, who do you like?”
“Greed is good, Phil, greed is good.”
“How’s that Saudi money?”
“7-over for $200 million.”
On the front nine, Mickelson bogeyed three of the first five holes. Then he melted down on the seventh hole by four-putting from 15 feet for double bogey.
“It’s OK, you’ve got $200 million,” one fan said as Mickelson walked by.
While there were plenty of comments about LIV, there was also plenty of love from fans who wore his gear and cheered him on.
“Let Phil LIV!”
“Tell Jay [Monahan] to let Phil LIV.”
Another called out to Mickelson before his tee shot on the 13th hole and asked him when gear for the Hi-Flyers (Mickelson’s LIV squad) would be available. Mickelson, at this point 7-over, smiled and replied: “Soon.”
Mickelson, who turned 52 on Thursday, was even serenaded with “Happy Birthday” on the ninth green. Yet if those fans were awaiting some sort of crescendo or storybook moment, it never came. Mickelson could not oblige. His lone bright spot on the round was a short birdie putt on 11, which got him back to 5-over.
“I’m playing better than I’m scoring,” Mickelson said. “I’ll get in the groove … I’m looking forward to having another chance at the golf course.”
The circus that surrounds Mickelson made one thing clear: his score is inconsequential to the larger Mickelson ecosystem. Fans will still cheer him, but they aren’t cheering him for his game.
At one point Thursday, while Mickelson stood on the 16th tee, a couple fans repeatedly asked for a thumbs-up as if it was a game to see who could get it. Mickelson finally looked over and gave it to them. They cheered. Less than a minute later, one of them said, not loud enough for Mickelson to hear: “Why’d you have to, man? Why’d you have to go.”
These days, fans will cheer, jeer and laugh. Mickelson will smile, salute and give a thousand more thumbs up. He has headed off to LIV, for events some of his peers have referred to as “exhibitions” and on Thursday, it felt like that’s all he was too.