U.S. Open shifts focus from Saudi money to golf’s toughest test

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BROOKLYN, Mass. — The U.S. Open isn’t the only U.S. major that feels like an afterthought, lost in chatter and innuendo on topics that have nothing to do with birdies and bogeys.

Golf is no longer the main focus of the 1990 PGA Championship at Shoal Creek, Alabama. The club’s founder has said that Shoal Creek will not be forced to accept black members. Corporate sponsors began pulling TV ads, planning protests, and Shoal Creek extended membership to a black insurance executive a week before the PGA.

Until the first tee off, most of the story was about the controversy and its ripple effect in golf, not whether Nick Faldo could win his third major of the year.

At the 2003 Masters, activist Martha Burk and her demands for Augusta to have a female member were drawn between club president Hootie Johnson and club president Hootie Johnson. Front, the latter stubbornly said that day might come, but “not under the threat of a bayonet”.

Tiger Woods, who is preparing for an unprecedented third straight Masters tournament, received 10 questions from the media about social issues and chaos at Augusta National. Then when Thursday came, the rain washed away the first round.

The difference is that the U.S. Open has been overshadowed by a development it didn’t do on its own.

Fortunately, a week after the Saudi-funded LIV Golf Rebel Series kicked off outside London, the 122nd Open is back at the country club and has a century of history.

The two biggest defectors, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, are among 14 players suspended from the PGA Tour for signings and are now playing in the U.S. Open. Rumors have been circulating throughout the week that more players may be signed up for the Saudi game next week.

Mickelson defended his decision. Rory McIlroy said players who signed up for the 54-hole event without a cut and guaranteed prize money were “taking a shortcut”.

“We’re praying that tomorrow will change,” USGA President Mike Wann said Wednesday. “Even though I can say you don’t have to ask us how we feel about it. Ask 156 players who are working hard for tomorrow. They’re trying to focus on the same thing we’re trying to focus on.

“I think – hopefully – once we start tomorrow, at least for the next four days, we’ll have other things to talk about.”

It starts with local flavors. Stanford’s Michael Thorbjornsen, who grew up in the Boston area and won the U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, teeed off at No. 1. Fran Quinn, 57, who lives about 40 minutes from Brookline, will start on the 10th.

Mickelson got nothing but cheers and support in practice — not as boisterous as in previous years. He can look forward to playing a few “Happy Birthday” in his opening round, as he turns 52 on Thursday.

They’re up against an old-fashioned course with dense rough around most of the small greens, and the fescue fairways aren’t the narrowest for the U.S. Open, but are still an important part of keeping the big numbers off the cards.

The par-3 11th hole is 131 yards, and at some point it could be under 100 yards. The fifth hole is short enough for players to tee off the green.

The U.S. Open is usually about precision rather than power, and it’s the key to patience for anyone. However, recent history has favored the big hitters — last year’s Jon Rahm, Winged Foot’s Bryson DeChambeau, Pebble Beach’s Gary Woodland, back-to-back Brooks Koepka and Oakmont’s Johnson.

“If you go a little longer, you might have an advantage,” said John Bodenhammer, chief tournament officer of the USGA who set up the course. “What’s going on here, I don’t know. We’ll find out. We’ve been here 34 years.”

It was 1988, and Curtis Strange beat Nick Faldo in the playoffs. Both are known for their precise iron play and avoiding big mistakes.

“It’s going to be a good old-fashioned U.S. Open, rough, and we’ll see how they ride it and what they use on the tee,” Bodhammer said. “I’m telling you, with these small greens and solid greens, they need to be on the fairways.”

As for the prize money, the U.S. Open is already in line with other majors, if not a step up. The PGA Tour is setting the tone by raising The Players Championship prize money to $20 million, hoping the majors will follow.

The Masters and PGA Championship purse rose to $15 million (both up by at least $3 million), while the U.S. Open increased $5 million to $17.5 million.

That’s compared to the $25 million the LIV Golf Series is offering for its 54-hole event, which saw only four of the world’s top 50 players compete last week.

It’s a trophy all about history, dating back to 1895, making it golf’s second-oldest championship. That should be enough to get anyone’s attention in four days.

“We’re here to play the majors, we’re here to win the U.S. Open, we’re here to play and beat everyone else in the field, in this great field,” said two-time major champion Colin Morikawa. “That’s what it’s about.”

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