BROOKLYN, Mass. — Historic moments are commonplace at the U.S. Open, as expected for the tournament, which was first played in 1895. But on Thursday, in the opening round of the event’s 122nd game, there was a notable first game that would have been unthinkable even a month ago.
Fifteen golfers recently ditched the established PGA Tour in favor of an alliance with the Saudi-backed upstart tour, which is recruiting new members for hundreds of millions of dollars to compete with players they just left.
Oh yes, the National Golf Championship is at stake.
The scene has all the elements of a stirring emotional conflict: a potential sense of betrayal, accusations of soulless greed, the prospect of transformative change and popular, beloved characters trapped in a storm.
But it turns out that elite golf is too polite for all of this.
Picture this scenario, six-time Grand Slam champion and LIV Golf Invitational series’ most famous defector Phil Mickelson is ready to start his round. Over the weekend, it was reported that Mickelson, who turned 52 on Thursday, was paid $200 million to become the star attraction of the Rebel LIV Golf Tour, whose major shareholder is Private Investments, the Saudi Arabian sovereign wealth fund. fund.
Applause surrounds Mickelson as he walks through a corridor of fans leading to the stadium. The reception wasn’t as warm as it was a year ago, when he won the PGA Championship to become the oldest ever major champion, but it was warm.
By the time Mickelson stepped onto the first tee, there were cheers and whistles, causing Mickelson to dump his hat. When the applause faded a little, Mickelson turned to his signature gestures — a smile and an enthusiastic thumbs up — that would rekindle the applause.
Dozens of fans chanted encouragement:
“Go to Phil!”
“Come on, lefty.”
“We love you Phil!”
In recent days, the vast majority of players still loyal to the PGA Tour have privately wondered if players who now work for LIV Golf will be booed at country clubs. That didn’t happen. Dustin Johnson, the No. 1 player who joined the new league last week, kicked off the group stage ahead of Mickelson. Johnson’s greeting was flat, but still affectionate.
As for Mickelson on the tee, he didn’t hear anything that came close to jeering. However, he was hilariously teased by at least one fan. Mickelson is known for his gambling habits, which Mickelson called “reckless and embarrassing” in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week.
Just before Mickelson hit his first shot on Thursday, a fan on the hill behind him yelled, “Phil, Celtics three and a half points tonight, who do you like?”
Boston is a 3.5-point favorite against the Golden State Warriors in Game 6 of the NBA Finals Thursday night at TD Garden, a few miles away.
Mickelson kept his turn as the crowd erupted in laughter. He then teeed off on the fairway, walking to the hole as fans cheered and called his name.
More thumbs up gestures. More cheers.
Earlier on the practice range, any sense of division between players associated with LIV Golf and those still committed to the PGA Tour also faded.
Webb Simpson, the 2012 U.S. Open champion and PGA Tour stalwart, approached Mickelson with a big smile and bumped his fist. They talked easily for a few seconds. To the left of Mickelson is Sean Lowry, who will play in the same group on Thursday. Lowry has been stressing — really insisting — that he won’t be on the rival’s tour. But on Thursday, he also had a pleasant chat with Mickelson and the third member of their group, South Africa’s Louis Ushuitsyn, who also joined the LIV Golf Series. If the foundations of professional golf are indeed on the verge of being upended, as some have feared in recent days, it’s not obvious through the light-hearted banter of this group, each of whom has won at least one major.
As Mickelson’s round unfolded, it became clear that his game, which had been shaky for months, was not improving. He barely recovered from bogeys on the first and third holes and shot an 8-over 78 that put him 12 behind first-round leader Adam Hadwin of Canada. Mickelson fans groaned after his miss, clapping and shouting his name as he left the green. One of those fans who shouted at Mickelson was William Sullivan of Woburn, Massachusetts.
Asked if he was surprised or disappointed when Mickelson chose to play the inaugural LIV golf event near London last week, Sullivan shook his head and said, “Not really.”
LIV Golf Series Quick Guide
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Sullivan reminded that Mickelson, who won more than $94 million on the PGA Tour, warned that any player who joined LIV Golf would be suspended or even permanently suspended, Sullivan laughed.
“Yes, but what did they give Phil — $200 million, right?” Sullivan asked. “Who wouldn’t take $200 million? I mean, golf?”
As Mickelson turned to the fourth hole, a single voice shouted in his direction: “Sell!”
Mickelson didn’t respond.
Around the golf course on Thursday, 12 groups consisted of LIV Golf and PGA Tour players. Among them are reigning U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm of Spain, 2020 PGA Championship champion Collin Morikawa and 2021 U.S. Amateur champion James Piot, who played in the first LIV Golf Championship last week. (James Piot).
The group moved briskly and civilly around the layout of the country club, showing all the courtesy golfers usually do – keeping quiet when the opponent is over the ball, staying out of sight when others putt, if The ball marker moves on someone’s line. This looks like any other trio in any other first-round match at a major.
It is reminiscent of the words of Justin Thomas, one of the young players who pledged to support the PGA Tour, who said earlier this week of those who opted to join the PGA Tour: “You It’s okay to disagree with that decision. You might want them to do something different. But for people at home, it’s not fair to say that Dustin Johnson is a bad guy right now. That’s not right.”
On Tuesday, Ram said something similar. His compatriot Sergio Garcia is now a LIV golfer. When asked about Garcia’s defection, Ram replied: “None of my business.”