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Phil Mickelson apologizes for controversial comments about a Saudi-backed golf league

Phil Mickelson, seen at the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National in 2020, says he "used words I sincerely regret" in an interview about a Saudi-financed golf league.
Brett Carlsen
Getty Images
Phil Mickelson, seen at the Charles Schwab Series at Ozarks National in 2020, says he "used words I sincerely regret" in an interview about a Saudi-financed golf league.

Golfer Phil Mickelson has apologized for controversial comments he made about Saudi Arabia and a Saudi-backed upstart golf league that had hoped to lure star players away from the longtime golf establishment.

In a statement posted to social media Tuesday, Mickelson wrote that he "used words I sincerely regret" in a recently published interview in which the six-time major winner described the Saudi regime as "scary motherf******" and brushed aside known human rights violations, including the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

"It was reckless, I offended people, and I am deeply sorry for my choice of words," Mickelson wrote.

The apology follows a backlash over comments Mickelson made about the Super Golf League, a breakaway league with ambitions of luring stars away from the world's premier professional golf organizations, including the PGA Tour. The SGL is reportedly financed by Saudi Arabia's sovereign wealth fund.

Mickelson had been perhaps the most high-profile golfer to support the Super Golf League since details about it first became public several years ago.

But heads turned last week at comments made by Mickelson about Saudi Arabia and the upstart league that were published in an excerpt of a forthcoming "unauthorized" biography of Mickelson by the golf writer Alan Shipnuck.

"They're scary motherf****** to get involved with," Mickelson said in the interview, which was conducted in November and published last week on the golf website Fire Pit Collective.

"We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates," he said.

Mickelson said a Saudi-backed golf league has given players leverage over the PGA Tour

In the interview, Mickelson criticized the way the PGA Tour compensates its players. The association controls players' media rights, and its prize structure flattens winnings between the highest-profile star golfers and lesser-known players near the bottom of the rankings.

"The Saudi money has finally given us that leverage. I'm not sure I even want [the SGL] to succeed, but just the idea of it is allowing us to get things done with the [PGA] Tour," Mickelson said in the interview.

In his statement Tuesday, Mickelson suggested that his words had been taken "out of context" and that the interview with Shipnuck had been off the record — a claim that Shipnuck said is "false and duplicitous."

"Not once in our texts or when we got on the phone did Mickelson request to go off-the-record and I never consented to it; if he had asked, I would have pushed back hard, as this was obviously material I wanted for the book," Shipnuck wrote Tuesday.

The eye-opening comments have jarred the professional golf world. In the days since, several high-profile players that had been rumored to be considering the SGL have publicly committed to the PGA instead.

Mickelson loses a key sponsorship

The Big Four accounting firm KPMG, which has long sponsored Mickelson, announced Tuesday that the firm and golfer had "mutually agreed" to end the sponsorship.

"I have made a lot of mistakes in my life and many have been shared with the public. 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," Mickelson wrote in his statement.

Mickelson, who has missed recent PGA events, suggested he would take a longer break from golf.

"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," he said.

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Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.