BROOKLINE, Massachusetts. – There are often historical moments at the US Open, as you would expect from a championship first held in 1895. a month ago.
Fifteen golfers who recently ditched the established PGA Tour to join the upstart, Saudi-backed circuit that has recruited new members with hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives will compete alongside the players they just left.
Oh yes, and a national golf championship was at stake.
The setting had all the elements of a thrilling emotional encounter: an undercurrent of betrayal, accusations of soulless greed, the prospect of transformative change, and a popular, beloved figure trapped in a firestorm.
But it turns out that elite golf has too much decorum for all this.
Imagine the scene in which Phil Mickelson, six-time Grand Champion and most famous defector from the LIV Golf Invitational series, prepares to start his round. Mickelson, who turned 52 on Thursday, was reportedly paid $200 million over the weekend to be the star of LIV Golf’s rebellious tour, which is majority-owned by the Private Equity Fund, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.
When Mickelson walked past the corridor of fans to the track, he was surrounded by applause. The reception wasn’t as enthusiastic as it was a year ago when he won the PGA Championship and became the world’s oldest champion, but he was passionate and elated.
By the time Mickelson stepped on the first target, there were cheers and whistles that made Mickelson raise his cap. When the applause died down a bit, Mickelson turned to his trademark gesture – a smile and a thumbs up – which again caused a standing ovation.
Dozens of fans enthusiastically shouted:
“Come on, Phil!”
– Come on, Lefty.
“We love you, Phil!”
The vast majority of PGA Tour players have been privately wondering in recent days if players now at LIV Golf would be booed at the Country Club. That did not happen. Not when Dustin Johnson, the best player to join the new league last week, started in the group ahead of Mickelson. Johnson’s greeting was hushed, but still affectionate.
As for Mickelson in the first match, he did not hear anything close to ridicule. However, one fan at least teased him comically. Mickelson is known for his gambling, which Mickelson called “reckless and shameful” in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week.
Just before Mickelson landed his first punch on Thursday, a fan on the hillside behind him bellowed, “Phil, Celtics three and a half tonight, who do you like?”
Boston was the 3.5-point favorite against Golden State in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at TD Garden just a few miles away.
While the crowd burst into laughter, Mickelson kept his back. He then drove into the fairway and headed for the hole as the fans cheered and called his name.
More thumbs up gestures. More cheers.
Previously, on the training ground, any sense of a bristling division between LIV Golf-oriented players and those still committed to the PGA Tour has vanished.
Webb Simpson, 2012 US Open champion and stalwart PGA Tour competitor, approached Mickelson with a big smile and punched him. For a few seconds they spoke lightly. Batting to Mickelson’s left was Shane Lowry, who will play in the same group on Thursday. Lowry was adamant – insisting, in fact – that he would not join the competing tour. But on Thursday, he also had a nice chat with Mickelson and the third member of their group, South Africa’s Louis Ousthuisen, who also joined the LIV Golf series. If the foundations of professional golf are indeed on the verge of breaking down, as some have feared in recent days, it hasn’t been made clear by the light banter of this group, who have each won at least one major championship.
As Mickelson round turned around, it was obvious that his game, staggering for many months, had not improved. He terrified the first and third holes and barely recovered, hitting eight over par 78s to leave him 12 shots behind first-round leader Adam Hadwin of Canada. Mickelson’s fans moaned after his misses, cheered as he left the lawn, and yelled his name. One of those fans who cheered Mickelson out loud was William Sullivan of Woburn, Massachusetts.
Asked if he was surprised or disappointed when Mickelson decided to play the inaugural LIV Golf near London last week, Sullivan shook his head and said, “Not really.”
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Recalling that the PGA Tour, the circuit from which Mickelson has made over $94 million, warned that any player joining LIV Golf would be suspended and possibly permanently banned, Sullivan smirked.
“Yeah, and Phil was offered $200 million, right?” Sullivan asked. “Who wouldn’t take $200 million? I mean, play golf?
As Mickelson turned to the fourth hole, a single voice shouted in his direction, “Sale!”
Mickelson did not respond.
Twelve groups of LIV Golf and PGA Tour players gathered around the golf course on Thursday. One of them included Spain’s John Rahm, reigning US Open champion, Collin Morikawa, 2020 PGA Championship winner, and James Piot, 2021 US amateur champion who played last week’s inaugural LIV Golf tournament.
The group moved swiftly and politely around the country club, displaying all the usual courtesies of a golfer: keeping quiet when an opponent is over the ball, staying out of sight when others are hitting, moving the trail of the ball if it is in someone’s line. . It looked like any other trio in any other first round of a major championship.
He recalled the words of Justin Thomas, a leader among young players who declared their support for the PGA Tour, who earlier this week said of those who decided to join the breakaway enterprise: “You can disagree with the decision. Perhaps you may wish them to do something different. But it’s mandatory for the people at home to say that Dustin Johnson is now a bad person, it’s not fair. It’s just not right.”
Ram said something similar on Tuesday. His compatriot Sergio Garcia is now an LIV golfer. Asked about Garcia’s defection, Ram replied, “None of my business.”