For 30 years Phil Mickelson was a staple of the WM Phoenix Open. In fact, he was the Phoenix Open.
Lefty made his debut at the PGA Tour’s annual Arizona desert stop in 1989 as an 18-year-old freshman at Arizona State. As Mickelson evolved from a three-time NCAA champion to a six-time major champion and 45-time winner on Tour, the event at TPC Scottsdale grew with him and took a bit of his personality along for the ride.
Mickelson is no stranger to a good time and the same can be said for the tournament known as “The People’s Open,” which boasts a party atmosphere highlighted by The Coliseum — the famous par-3 16th that features 15,000 fans spread around the 162-yard hole.
“I think when I first started playing the tournament, I always felt this was a good golf course for me, always thought I would play well here and I always believed I would win this event,” said Mickelson, a three-time winner in Phoenix, ahead of the 2019 event. “One of the things that I could not have foreseen is probably the size, scale, scope of what this tournament has become. The 16th hole, what a famous and unique experience that is from a golfer standpoint, it's unlike anything we have.
“It was always special, but it became something bigger and larger than I think I ever thought possible.”
Mickelson’s first Phoenix Open win came in 1996, when the tournament was played Wednesday-Saturday because the Phoenix area was hosting the Super Bowl, just as it is this year (the 2023 event is Thursday-Sunday). He was on 59 watch for his other two wins in 2005 and 2013, but settled for 60 at each. He’s finished in the top 10 an impressive 11 times and holds 15 tournament records. He is the tournament's all-time leading money winner.
Simply put, Mickelson is the man in Phoenix. Or at least he was.
For the fourth straight year, the Open will not include Mickelson, who skipped for the first time in 2020 to play the Saudi International. The move to pass on Phoenix foreshadowed Mickelson’s later defection to LIV Golf, the upstart circuit led by Greg Norman and financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which now serves as title sponsor for the Saudi International.
"I'd be lying if I wasn't disappointed (in Mickelson's decision)," said former tournament chairman Tim Woods in December 2019. "I mean, I am. I will tell you that Phil has been a very, very special part of our tournament for so long — for 30 years. And I know the fans are going to be disappointed in that. But he's been a great ambassador for us, obviously an (Arizona State) guy, and I certainly don't think this is his last go-around with us. I sure hope it's not.”
Mickelson is as optimistic as anyone, if not more, but Woods and the fans in Phoenix better not hold their breath for his return.
“I just don't have a desire to go back and play any of those events,” said Mickelson at LIV’s team championship in Miami last October when asked if he would miss any regular PGA Tour stops. “It's difficult to come to a tournament put on by LIV that is so player friendly, that tries to have the best experience for the players and the least amount of energy output throughout the week, giving you time to prepare, get ready and put on the tournament and then really be present with the fans that are here. So it's difficult to go back to a tournament that is so much more difficult with energy output throughout the week.”
Those in attendance will also be missing fan favorite Brooks Koepka, a two-time winner at TPC Scottsdale, as well as Bubba Watson and Kevin Na, who all joined LIV last year and also feature in the top-15 of the all-time money list in Phoenix. Other LIV golfers not returning include Pat Perez and Bryson DeChambeau.
Even though Mickelson has no interest in returning to the Tour, he still thinks players should have the option. For the 52-year-old, it’s just too much. Mickelson is exempt into the majors for the next three years, so those four tournaments paired with LIV’s 14-event schedule and the Saudi International makes for 19 starts.
“When I signed up, I thought it was supposed to be 10 (LIV events). So 10 plus four majors is 14. So it's already a month more than I had originally thought,” Mickelson said. “I mean it's more than enough.
“The LIV events are so player friendly that it's hard to go back.”
But fear not, Phoenix fans, for your event always finds a way to deliver. Five of the last seven tournaments have gone to a playoff, and two outsiders were decided by just one and two strokes. Scottie Scheffler, Hideki Matsuyama and Rickie Fowler have hoisted the trophy in that same time frame, with the likes of Patrick Cantlay, Xander Schauffele and Tony Finau all knocking on the door, as well. Another ASU alum, Jon Rahm, has all but picked up the mantle from Mickelson already. Not to mention it’s one of the Tour’s new designated events that’s guaranteed to produce a world-class field and draw an even better crowd.
While the loss of Mickelson, Koepka and Co. might have briefly hurt the short term, the future of the tournament in the desert is as bright as ever.
This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Loss of Mickelson, others to LIV will sting, not define, Phoenix Open