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Tiger Woods and other golfers' defense of Phil Mickelson playing in Saudi Arabia dances around a delicate topic

Phil Mickelson
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesPhil Mickelson waits on the 18th green during the second round of the 2019 WGC-HSBC Champions.

NEW PROVIDENCE, Bahamas — A recent winner and one of the game’s most prominent players summed it up best when explaining the controversy over Phil Mickelson’s decision to play next month in Saudi Arabia: “It’s a no-win situation.”

On that even Tiger Woods agreed. The 15-time major champion, who reportedly turned down a roughly $3 million appearance fee to play at the Saudi International on the European Tour, did so not necessarily out of political protest.

“I just don’t want to go over there,” Woods told ESPN.com. “It’s a long way.”

Woods allowed that the Saudi tournament, now in its second year, carries with it more complications than an extended flight. The inaugural playing of the event in 2019 came just a few months after the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Washington Post writer living in the United States who had been critical of Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman and who was killed inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, Turkey. Saudi Arabia has also come under fire for other human rights violations.

The crown prince, whose government is providing the $3.5 million purse as well as lucrative appearance fees to a handful of players, was a prominent figure at last year’s tournament.

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“I understand the politics behind it,” Woods said on the eve of his Hero World Challenge. “But the game of golf can actually help heal all that, too. It can help grow that. There are also a lot of other top players that are going to be playing that particular week.

“It’s traditionally not a golf hotbed in the Middle East, but it has grown quite a bit,” Woods continued. “I remember going to Dubai for my very first time and seeing, what, maybe two, three buildings on the skyline when you tee off on No. 8. Now there's a New York City skyline back there. The game of golf has grown. There’s only been a few courses when I first went to Dubai, now they’re everywhere; same with Abu Dhabi and maybe eventually in Saudi Arabia.”

Rory McIlroy also reportedly turned down a significant appearance fee for next year’s tournament, and Paul Casey has been previously outspoken about not playing in the event.

Several other top-ranked players, however, are set to compete, including defending champion Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Henrik Stenson, Tony Finau and Open champion Shane Lowry.

Mickelson, meanwhile, has chosen to skip the Waste Management Phoenix Open, a tournament he has played since 1990, to play in the Middle East. Though a handful of players Golf Digest spoke to found it curious that Mickelson, a five-time major winner with more than $90 million in career earnings, would skip the trip to TPC Scottsdale, most stopped short of criticizing him.

“Anyone who’s is a critic of Phil going, if they were in that same position would likely do the same thing,” one major winner told Golf Digest. “But it’s a little different when it’s Phil because [the money from any appearance fee] isn’t going to change his life.”

David Cannon/Getty Images

Fowler says that several factors weigh into a decision to play overseas.

What goes into making such decisions?

“If the right numbers are thrown out, it can be hard to say no,” said Rickie Fowler when asked about the thought process behind deciding where, and where not, to play.

“Some guys like to travel, some don’t,” Fowler said. “Myself and [my wife] Allison, we love to see new places, love culture, history and food. The big thing for me when offers come up is where it fits in schedule and how it’s going to affect the things around it. Yes, the money is nice, but if it’s not going to work schedule-wise that’s going to outweigh a nice payday.”

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To Fowler’s point, he prefers to play in Phoenix, and next year will defend his title at TPC Scottsdale.

In any event, there are multiple factors players said they take into consideration when it comes to teeing it up somewhere.

“There’s probably no amount of money I’d take to go play in Hong Kong right now,” said Jordan Spieth, noting the ongoing protests that have crippled that city. “But that’s as much a safety concern as anything.”

While Spieth did not receive an offer to play in the Saudi International, he said when it comes to his own schedule the choices aren’t always easy.

“It can be tricky,” he said. “You have to weigh the money versus what the commitment is.”

For Mickelson, and the others committed to playing in Saudi Arabia, whatever backlash they receive is apparently worth it.