Mickelson at British Open after skipping champions’ meal

By Chris Lehourites

All dressed in black, Phil Mickelson walked out onto the first tee at the Old Course with only a few hundred fans watching nearby and several boisterous seagulls cackling above.

His golf week was about to begin – a few days later than normal for a British Open champion at St. Andrews.

Mickelson said after finishing his opening round on even-par 72 Thursday that he didn’t attend the champions’ dinner on Tuesday because the R&A told him the club didn’t “think it’s a great idea you go.”

The American is among the players who have angered the PGA Tour and the golf establishment by joining LIV Golf, the Saudi-funded breakaway series which has caused a rift in the sport.

“The R&A contacted me a couple weeks before and said, `Look, we don’t think it’s a great idea you go, but if you want to, you can.’ I just didn’t want to make a big deal about it, so I said, `Fine,”’ Mickelson said. “We both kind of agreed that it would be best if I didn’t.”

Mickelson isn’t the only former Open champion associated with LIV Golf. Two-time champion Greg Norman, the CEO of the breakaway series, was asked not to come to St. Andrews for the dinner because it might be a distraction. Louis Oosthuizen, the 2010 champion at St. Andrews, was there, however.

Out on the course, Mickelson was introduced on the first tee to some light applause from the sparse crowd at exactly 7:30 a.m. With the claret jug perched on a podium nearby, the six-time major winner teed up and let it rip.

He had a better reception than the one afforded to Ian Poulter, another LIV Golf player, a few minutes earlier. Despite being a Ryder Cup great for Europe, the Englishman received some boos when he started off in front of the clubhouse on the first.

“Didn’t hear one,” said Poulter, who shot a 3-under 69. “I actually thought I had a great reception on the first tee, to be honest. All I heard was clapping.”

Along the course itself, both players got plenty of cheers and encouragement.

“I love being here,” Mickelson said after his round with three birdies and three bogeys. “Everybody here loves golf, and we find this place to be very spiritual. As great as this game has been to me, to be able to come here to the home and compete again – I think this is my sixth one here – I’ve had some great moments here.”

It’s not exactly clear how many more are in his future, however.

R&A chief Martin Slumbers, speaking about LIV Golf on Wednesday, threatened to change the British Open criteria, possibly making it more difficult for some players to gain entry to golf’s oldest championship. He said “there is no such thing as a free lunch.”

Mickelson, though, said he has had no regrets about his decision to go with the new series.

“I love the events,” he said. “I get to have golf in my life and competitive golf in my life on a scale that is fun, exciting, different, and lets me play and compete but still do the things outside that I want to do.

“I’ve got a nice trip lined up after this and things that I haven’t been able to do in the past. So, no, I couldn’t be happier.”