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Sunday September 25th, 2022 1:10AM

Column: Tiger's back, but Lefty's nowhere to be found

By The Associated Press
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Tiger Woods is getting ready to tee it up at Augusta National.

Phil Mickelson is nowhere to be found.

This scenario was unimaginable just a few months ago, when Woods was still recovering from a horrific wreck, while Mickelson's enormous popularity had surged even more after he became golf's oldest major champion.

But Lefty's hubris got the best of him again, leading to a stunning fall from grace even as autocratic regimes such as Saudi Arabia find plenty of willing partners for their sportswashing schemes.

Now the big question is: Can Mickelson pull off a comeback of his own?

Of course he can, but who knows if he even wants to patch things up with the PGA Tour and his fellow players.

The more perplexing issue is why Mickelson took this path in the first place — one of the richest athletes on the planet, coming off an inspiring victory at the 2021 PGA Championship just shy of his 51st birthday, embracing an upstart, Saudi-backed golf tour even while acknowledging the country's grim record on human rights.

These wounds were entirely self-inflicted.

“His scandal is, frankly, kind of bizarre,” said Mike Lewis, a marketing professor at Emory University in Atlanta. “It's not just a scandal, it's a head-scratcher. You're like, ‘Did I read that right?’”

To recap, Mickelson — whose net worth has been estimated at $800 million — accused the PGA Tour of “obnoxious greed.” Not long after, golf writer and author Alan Shipnuck published part of his upcoming biography on Mickelson that shed further insight into Lefty's involvement with Greg Norman and the Saudi-funded “Super Golf League.”

Mickelson said the Saudis were “scary mother (expletive)," specifically mentioning the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi and the country's anti-LBGTQ laws.

Then, without skipping a beat, Mickelson said it was worth getting in bed with the Saudis if it meant changing the PGA Tour — which was essentially code for cashing even larger paychecks, an especially important consideration, apparently, for someone in the twilight of his career.

“Why would I even consider it?" he posed to Shipnuck. "Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.”

In the understandable backlash to Lefty's spot-on impersonation of Mr. Burns, Mickelson lost most of his big-money sponsors and became a pariah in a large part of the golfing world.

He shut down his career, saying he "desperately needed” some time to reassess his priorities, and withdrew from the Masters — via text message, as we learned Wednesday from Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley.

Ridley insisted that it was Mickelson's decision to withdraw, not one forced on him by the club. It's the first time the three-time champion has missed the Masters since 1994.

“We did not disinvite Phil,” Ridley said. “Phil reached out to me, I think in late February or early Match, and let me know he did not intend to play. That was by way of a text. I thanked him for his courtesy in letting me know. I told him we certainly appreciated that. I told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he liked.”

Beyond that brief exchange, there is no evidence of Mickelson discussing the matter with anyone beyond his inner circle. Not even with the golfers that he's fairly close to, such as Bryson DeChambeau.

It's been a complete vanishing act.

“I’ve tried to reach out, but he’s gone dark,” DeChambeau said this week. “There’s no contact.”

While Mickelson's dalliance with the Saudis caught everyone off guard, it really shouldn't have been a surprise.

Lefty has demonstrated time and time again that his bank account will always be his No. 1 priority, from an insider trading scandal he was fortunate to escape with only a slap on the wrist to his griping about high taxes in his native California even while living a life of enormous luxury.

Mickelson has always fashioned himself as the People's Champion, but the only people he really cares about are those who can make him even richer.

In that respect, he's comrades with many of the world's most prominent sporting organizations.

The most recent Winter Olympics were held in China, which has been accused of a genocidal campaign against its Uyghur minority. Soccer's World Cup will be hosted at the end of the year by Qatar, which has a lengthy record of human rights violations. Formula One has looked the other way when awarding races to authoritarian regimes throughout the Middle East. World Wrestling Entertainment (not a real sport, but worth mentioning) hosts annual pay-per-view events in Saudi Arabia.

Mickelson and the Saudi golf league are just another offshoot of a rapidly changing world, where morality has become a very gray issue when you're talking about all that green.

“As Americans, we grew up thinking America was the center of the universe,” Lewis said. “What's happened over time with globalization is the money has really shifted. ... These other countries reflect the bulk of the audience in the world."

In Lewis' eyes, the Saudi-backed golf tour is not unlike the effort by some of Europe's most prominent soccer clubs to form their own super league, which would totally upend that sport's traditional structure within national borders.

“Phil kind of put his mouth in it,” Lewis said, “but this where everyone is going. There's the soccer super league. There's the NBA wanting to be more of a global brand like (soccer governing body) FIFA.”

No one knows where Mickelson goes from here.

Turning back might not be an option.

“The world is in a massive debate about human rights,” Lewis said. “But globalization has led to this getting much more complicated.”

___

Paul Newberry is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at pnewberry(at)ap.org or at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963

___

More AP golf: https://apnews.com/hub/golf and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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