(Reuters) – Phil Mickelson has been as much a part of the Masters as the vibrant azaleas at Augusta National and his absence this week after incendiary remarks about a Saudi-funded golf league will leave the year’s first major without a long-time fan favourite.
Three-times champion Mickelson has made 29 career starts at the Masters and this week marks his first absence since he sat out the 1994 edition while recovering from a broken leg suffered in a skiing accident.
During that time, Mickelson’s happy-go-lucky personality, remarkable short game and go-for-broke nature produced some of the most memorable moments in Masters history and along the way has been adored by the tournament’s patrons.
Mickelson even gave the event one of its most iconic images when, after draining the winning putt at the 2004 Masters for his first career major, he jumped into the air with both arms stretched above his head.
The Hall of Fame golfer announced in February that he was taking time away from the game amid criticism over comments he made about Saudi Arabia’s regime and the nation’s proposed new golf league.
After Mickelson’s name was removed from the list of eligible players for the Masters, a Golfweek report said he did not as much withdraw from the event but that tournament officials told him or encouraged him not to attend.
It is too soon to say how Mickelson, who is eighth all-time on the PGA Tour wins list with 45, will be received whenever he returns but it has so far been a bumpy road as he has remained out of the public view and lost a number of sponsors.
Mickelson came under fire in February when the author of an unauthorized biography on the six-times major champion released excerpts from the book in which the golfer called the Saudis “scary” but said he was willing to look past their human rights records to gain leverage with the PGA Tour.
Saudi Arabia’s government has denied accusations of human rights abuses and Mickelson apologised for the comments, which he claimed were off the record.
Mickelson has proven he can still conjure bouts of magic — as evidenced last year when, at 50 years old, he won the PGA Championship to become golf’s oldest major champion — but chasing another Green Jacket will have to wait at least another year.
While Mickelson will not be spotted on the famed Augusta National layout with the game’s top players, he will likely be a hot topic in the media, specifically at Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley’s pre-tournament news conference on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto, editing by Ed Osmond)