TULSA, Oklahoma (Reuters) -Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy may not agree with the comments Phil Mickelson made before taking a self-imposed hiatus from the sport, but both said on Tuesday they miss not having him in the field this week to defend his PGA Championship title.
Mickelson, who became golf’s oldest major champion at last year’s PGA Championship when he triumphed shortly before turning 51, stepped away from the game in February amid the reaction to comments he made regarding a Saudi-backed golf league.
The six-times major champion’s public image took a hit when the author of an unauthorised biography said the American golfer told him he was willing to look past Saudi Arabia’s human rights record to gain economic leverage over the PGA Tour.
Saudi Arabia’s government has denied accusations of human rights abuses and Mickelson later apologised for the comments, which he said were off the record.
Woods, speaking during his pre-tournament news conference at Southern Hills, said he has not talked with or reached out to Mickelson since the comments surfaced but was disappointed not to have the defending champion in the field.
“Phil has said some things that I think a lot of us who are committed to the Tour and committed to the legacy of the Tour have pushed back against, and he’s taken some personal time, and we all understand that,” said Woods.
“But as we all know, as a professional, we miss him being out here. I mean, he’s a big draw for the game of golf. He’s just taking his time and we all wish him the best when he comes back.”
Former world number one McIlroy felt Mickelson, a Hall of Fame golfer and long-time fan favourite, deserved a sort of victory lap at the year’s second major.
“This should be a celebration, right? He won a major championship at 50 years old. It was possibly his last big, big moment in the game of golf,” said McIlroy.
“He should be — I think he should be here this week and celebrating what a monumental achievement he made last year. It’s unfortunate. It’s sad. I don’t know what else I can say.”
‘GOING THROUGH A LOT’
Without six-times major winner Mickelson in the field, it is the first time the reigning PGA Championship winner will not defend his title since 2008 when Woods missed out while recovering from knee surgery.
PGA of America Chief Executive Seth Waugh said he has spoken with Mickelson “before, during, and after” and that it was the golfer’s choice not to defend his title.
“I can really say that on Friday his camp called and said he’s not ready to play. Obviously we respect that. We understand it,” said Waugh.
“He’s going through a lot. I don’t really have a whole lot more to say. It’s been parsed pretty well by everybody. We’re disappointed he’s not here, and again, wish him all the best.”
Mickelson, who has not played on the PGA Tour since January, last competed in early February at an Asian Tour event in Saudi Arabia and has not stated when, or where, he plans to return to competition after his break.
A number of sponsors have since cut ties with Mickelson or paused their relationships him.
Reigning U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, who has developed a close friendship with Mickelson and previously said the golfer’s legacy should not change over the controversial comments, would also have liked to have had him in the field this week.
“As long as he’s doing what is best for him, I can’t truly say I’m unhappy. I would have liked to see him defend,” said world number two Rahm. “I know he’s played good here in the past. But again, he’s got to do what he’s got to do.”
(Reporting by Steve Keating; Writing by Frank Pingue in TorontoEditing by Toby Davis)