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Even in historic St. Andrews, LIV Golf drama raises thorny questions about golf’s future

Phil Mickelson of The United States looks on during a practice round prior to The 150th Open at St Andrews Old Course on July 12, 2022 in St Andrews, Scotland.

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — At 12:40 p.m. local time Tuesday, Phil Mickelson appeared on the first tee of the Old Course alongside his practice-round partners, Jon Rahm and Padraig Harrington. He wore battleship-grey shorts and a black vest and had a rangefinder in a nifty holster on his right hip. When it was his turn to hit, Mickelson placed a portable launch monitor next to his ball and let fly a driving iron down the left side of the fairway. As Mickelson strolled off the tee, Harold Varner was playing a chip shot from the left of the 18th green.

“Harold!” Mickelson said.

Varner tuned around and smiled.

“Phil,” he said.

The two exchanged a fist bump and a few pleasantries, and another Mickelson practice round was underway.

It almost felt like business as usual. But, of course, in the world of professional golf these days, very little is business as usual.

A year ago, it would have been unfathomable to think that an upstart global golf tour with seemingly endless funding and Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau as its poster boys could be a real thing by the time the 150th Open Championship rolled around, let alone have a looming presence in what is a momentous week here in St. Andrews. But alas here we are, and there LIV Golf is.

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The R&A, which administers this grand event, has tried to muffle the noise, in part by disinviting LIV Golf chief and two-time Open champion Greg Norman from the week’s festivities. (In an interview with the Palm Beach Post, Norman called the decision “dumb” and “petty.”) Mickelson has not been banished from any of the proceedings, but he has been keeping a conspicuously low profile, presumably to avoid being a distraction.

On Monday evening, he opted out (his choice) of the Celebration of Champions, a feel-good four-hole event featuring a glittering list of Claret Jug winners, including the likes of Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy and Lee Trevino. On Tuesday, he sat out the Champions Dinner in the stately R&A clubhouse that overlooks the Old Course’s 1st tee and 18th green. If Mickelson’s current form holds, he also seems unlikely to factor in the weekend in the championship he won in stirring fashion nine years ago at Muirfield. In his last three starts — the first two LIV events and the U.S. Open — Mickelson was a combined 31 over in eight rounds.

But LIV Golf is much bigger than just Mickelson.

The Open field is littered with LIV defectors, or “rebels,” as the British tabs like to call them: Johnson, DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Paul Casey, Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, none of whom were invited to speak to the press this week in any formal capacity. On Tuesday, two more LIV commits, Sergio Garcia and Abraham Ancer, played a practice round together. On Wednesday morning, Garcia set out on the Old Course with yet another LIV signee, Patrick Reed, while another trio of LIV’ers also played together: Poulter, Richard Bland and Sam Horsfield. Strength in numbers.   

Past Open champions — Phil Mickelson not among them — gathered for a photo on Tuesday evening. getty images

In the media center, LIV also has been an unavoidable topic. In his Wednesday morning press conference, R&A chief Martin Slumbers came out on a LIV offensive, saying, “We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and spirit of open competition that makes golf so special. The continued commentary about growing the game is just not credible. If anything, it’s harming the perception of our sport which we are working so hard to improve.”

On Tuesday, Justin Thomas, who has been outspoken in his defense of the PGA Tour, was asked if he understood why the LIV questions keep coming.   

“I do and I don’t,” Thomas said. “It’s a very, very tough thing because it is, it truly is one of those things that the more you talk about it, the more traction it gets. But obviously y’all want to know how we feel, and we want to know how other people feel, other players. But I think it’s very obvious why we’re sick of talking about it because it is, it’s taking away from a lot of — whether it’s great storylines or just great things happening in the game of golf.”

Like, say, the 150th edition of the Open.

“That’s what we need to focus on,” Rory McIlroy said, a point that was echoed by reigning Open champion Collin Morikawa, who even before this week has made it quite clear that he has tired of the LIV chatter.  

“We don’t need to talk about LIV,” Morikawa reiterated Tuesday. “You’re not going to learn anything from me. What you know is what everyone knows.”

Morikawa continued: “We’re at the 150th Open at St. Andrews, all the past champions here, all the history, everything to get to this point. You see it on all the boards, right? I’m going to screw this up. Does it say it up here?”

Morikawa was referencing the official motto of this Open: Everything has led to this.

“That’s true of everything, but especially for this moment,” he said. “For a lot of guys who haven’t been here like myself, to come here, look out the hotel, walk down 17, 18 on Sunday when you have the public just walking, that’s the coolest experience as a fan, as a golfer, anyone could ask for because it’s a game for everyone. The stretch of just teeing off on 1, just seeing 17, just seeing 18, you feel the history, and you feel the importance of everything that has come before us at this golf course and golf in general.”

Morikawa was speaking specifically of the Old Course but he was hitting on a larger talking point that has become a rallying cry for players who have resisted LIV’s temptations: You can’t put a price tag on legacy. On Tuesday, it was Tiger Woods’ turn to beat that drum, and he did so with vigor. Woods has previously expressed his distaste for what the LIV Golf movement represents but never with such conviction.

“Some of these players may not ever get a chance to play in major championships. That is a possibility,” he said. “We don’t know that for sure yet. It’s up to all the major championship bodies to make that determination. But that is a possibility, that some players will never, ever get a chance to play in a major championship, never get a chance to experience this right here, walk down the fairways at Augusta National. That, to me, I just don’t understand it.”

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None of the LIV model computes in Woods’ golf-genius mind: the 54-hole format, the huge guaranteed payouts, the “blaring music” at events. But what really gets him is that the some of the next generation of great young players, if lured away by LIV, could potentially miss out on weeks like this one in the Auld Grey Toon.

“I just don’t see how that move is positive in the long term for a lot of these players, especially if the LIV organization doesn’t get world-ranking points and the major championships change their criteria for entering the events,” Woods said. “It would be sad to see some of these young kids never get a chance to experience it and experience what we’ve got a chance to experience and walk these hallowed grounds and play in these championships.”

Whether that actually will happen remains to be seen. In a Wednesday morning meeting here in St. Andrews, LIV officials formally applied for world ranking status, meaning it will now be up to the heads of the very organizations with which LIV has been clashing — the PGA Tour, the R&A, et. al. — to decide whether LIV events are worthy of doling out all-important world ranking points. Some might call that a deep conflict of interest.

It’s all happening here this week in the birthplace of golf, where the game’s glorious history is on a pedestal for all to see. What the game’s future holds, however, remains far less clear.

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