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Phil Mickelson, Rory McIlory and the battle for the future of golf

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BROOKLINE, Mass. – If Phil Mickelson was cast as the main villain in the very real, almost global golf conversation between them and us, he showed up Thursday afternoon looking the part: black hat, black shirt, black belt, pants dark gray, black shoes, wraparound sunglasses. Yet when he got to the first tee at the Country Club to start his US Open, the cat cries were mostly hugs. He turned 52 on Thursday. Golf slams all around.

“What do you say, Lefty?” »

Before, finally, the inevitable: “Phil, the Celtics give 3½. Who do you Love? Zarba is the head referee!

He was starting what would be an arduous 5 1/2 hour round to open the only major tournament he had never won. The dig referred to his penchant for betting the money he won on sports competitions, not his new source of wealth. Laughter throughout the gallery. No problem.

Still, there’s no exaggeration about the cloud hanging over not just the 122nd version of the National Championship, but the sport as a whole. He divided the field of 156 players into three categories: those who joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, those who pledged their allegiance to the PGA Tour and those who stayed for now but could still go. go.

At the US Open, it’s Rory McIlroy and a lot of golfers you don’t know

Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, the 2016 US Open champion who teeed off 11 minutes before Phil and also received hearty applause, are the brightest things to leave the PGA Tour. There will be more. Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner who has been revered here with every confident stride, won’t be one of them. He carries the torch of the establishment – and aggressively. Sunday at the Canadian Open, he bragged that his 21st PGA Tour win was “one more than anyone else.”

Related: Greg Norman, the erstwhile star the Saudis tapped to lead the LIV Golf effort, has won 20 PGA Tour events.

LIV Golf already offends the PGA Tour and its insomniac players

“I’m just me,” McIlroy said Thursday. ” I live my life. I do what I think is right and try to play the best golf possible. I was not asked to be put here. I was not trying to be in this position. I am just me.

The PGA Tour needs him to be him. If the US Open is truly considered fair against renegade, then the early advantage clearly lies with McIlroy – whose opening 67 left him with a header at 3 under par – over Mickelson, who four– put in sixth and generally looked dazed and indifferent en route to an 8 from 78. A six-time major winner, he’s an established star who has turned into a maverick. It is also decidedly unlikely for the weekend.

But it’s not Phil versus Rory. It is, of course, LIV against the world. What happens here – not on the course but in the speech – is unprecedented in modern golf. In a normal US Open week over the past quarter-century, a main topic before the tournament would be the form or lack thereof of Tiger Woods, the only real top-tier player the sport employs. Still, Woods’ name has been hardly on the lips here. (He’s not here because he needed more time to rest his ironclad leg after last month’s grueling PGA Championship, which he retired from after three innings.)

When Woods reappears – currently scheduled for July in St. Andrews for the British Open – there is little chance that this mess will be settled.

When was one of America’s major professional sports leagues – NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA or MLS – attacked by an upstart when the PGA Tour is currently bombarded? The 1980s, when the USFL tried to lure NFL talent – ​​Herschel Walker and Steve Young come to mind – for a summer season? That business lasted three seasons and died quickly when the owner of the New Jersey Generals – a guy named Trump – pushed to move the season to the fall to face the NFL. They never played another game.

LIV-Golf? For now, at least, it looks like he has more legs. It’s more than an existential threat to the way professional golf is staged and the way professional golfers manage their schedules and lives. It’s a real threatens. To survive, the USFL needed to make money. Money for LIV Golf – and its oil-rich Saudi backers – is irrelevant. Need more? Put another drill in the desert. It will sink.

So part of the reason the status quo of golf is so shaken is not just the existence of LIV, but its inherent viability. LIV Golf won’t go away because the PGA Tour somehow triumphs by banishing the talent that’s gone and keeping the rest in the fold. LIV Golf will disappear if and only if the Saudis decide to turn off the tap.

When Golfers Don’t Know Who Signs Checks, They Miss What They Buy

What McIlroy and a few other prominent young stars – Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth – are doing in expressing their preference for the PGA Tour is admirable not because the tour deserves blind loyalty, but because they don’t. sell themselves to take money from a regime with an odious human rights record. Country Club fans may be lukewarm in their angst over the decision by Mickelson and others, but the division in the sport is genuine.

After just one LIV Golf event, the disruption is so profound that it’s clear that the powers that be – the US Golf Association, the R&A, the DP World Tour (formerly known as the European Tour) and the Augusta National Golf Club – must come together to find a way forward.

Is it realistic for the USGA and the R&A – who organize the US Open and the British Open respectively – to ban LIV players? It wasn’t this week, and it isn’t next month at St. Andrews. Tournaments are announced as open, so how do they end?

“We sat down and had a long chat about a week before the US Open. [and asked], ‘Where someone else played and what promoter did they play it with disqualify them from this event?’ said USGA CEO Mike Whan this week. “We decided no on this, while being aware that not everyone would agree with this decision.”

Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa battle the odd to start US Open

More decisions are forthcoming. It is impossible to predict in which direction they will go. What is already evident is that guaranteed money and 54-hole no-cut tournaments are appealing, but not universally.

“To be honest, I could retire now with what I’ve earned and live a very happy life and not play golf anymore,” said Spain’s Rahm, the defending champion here. “So I never really played golf for financial reasons. I play for the love of the game and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.

The key phrase in all of this: “now”. Sport is changing – and fast. Finally, this weekend will be devoted to golf, as a major championship should be. But after a champion is crowned Sunday night, Monday morning will dawn with the same nagging questions: Who will go next? How will the PGA Tour and its partners react? And what will professional golf look like next year around this time?