LIV Golf Chicago yet another reminder of radical, unsettling changes to pro golf

Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith and Peter Uihlein pose for photos following the finish Sunday at the LIV Golf Invitational.

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SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — It was just a year ago, here in America’s Heartland, when Bryson DeChambeau had what he called “the best experience of my career.” DeChambeau went undefeated in three matches at the 2021 Ryder Cup, famously (and preposterously) driving the 1st green at Whistling Straits and earning 2.5 points during a record-setting U.S. romp.

“We were a force,” DeChambeau told GOLF.com last week. “We were just a force.” 

It was 5 p.m. on Thursday and DeChambeau was asked just how far away that Ryder Cup felt, now that he’s back playing team golf in the Midwest. 

“A long way,” he said. “Am I the same person? Yeah. Is my body a little different? Yeah. Nothing else is really different except for the golf landscape.” 

The entire golf landscape, that is. 

DeChambeau was in the middle of a putting session at Rich Harvest Farms, on the eve of yet another LIV Golf Invitational, about 45 miles west of Chicago. Despite the course being just 180 miles south of Whistling Straits, he wasn’t wrong: The pro game undoubtedly was “a long way” from last September. 

Lost in the haze of the past year has been the fact that DeChambeau began that Ryder Cup on edge. He arrived having avoided media for two months, the kind of decision that only garners more attention, agreeing to break his silence only because it seemed like the best move for the team. But 12 months later — this was now on Sunday evening at Rich Harvest Harms — a different DeChambeau approached reporters, proactively asking them if they needed anything from him. (His update: He hurt his eye when he was clothes-lined by a rope during the final round, a “freak accident,” but he would be fine, and his game was “trending” even if he’s frustrated.)

Moments later, Dustin Johnson arrived at the scoring tent. The MVP of the 2021 Ryder Cup dapped up his LIV teammates — with whom he’d just won a fourth straight LIV team title — and shared just two words: “Another one.” Twelve months ago a dominant DJ leading a team of Americans wouldn’t have earned you much juice at the sportsbook. But that’s what happened with Johnson’s Aces in Chicago, all of it taking place just days before the Presidents Cup kicks off in Charlotte, where none of them are involved, let alone invited.

The individual winner in Chicago was Cam Smith, whose absence will also be felt at the Presidents Cup. Joaquin Niemann, who finished fifth and was a lock for the International roster, will not be there, either. “It’s terrible,” he told GOLF.com on Thursday. He plans to tune in on TV, now more than $1 million richer as of Sunday night. Finishing right behind Niemann was Louis Oosthuizen, who told SI.com “it just sucks” that he cannot play in the Presidents Cup. 

If this week’s headlines feel like a LIV Golf sympathy tour, just wait until Presidents Cup media sessions begin. Trevor Immelman, the International team captain, put it plainly to GOLF.com last week: “All the players that left — just so there’s no misunderstanding — they had a very clear understanding and perspective of what the consequences would be with the decisions they were making. When they made those decisions, they factored all of these things in.” A year ago, Immelman highlighted four players that got him really excited. One is on his roster (Sungjae Im); the other three are with LIV (Smith, Niemann, Abe Ancer).

Back west of Chicago, another piece of this year-of-change portrait: captain Phil Mickelson. It being an NFL Sunday, much of Mickelson’s day was spent hearing gambling solicitations from the crowd, with him miming his responses with smiles and thumbs up. (An odd sequence to watch on repeat considering Mickelson’s public admission to “reckless gambling”.)

The 66 strokes Mickelson carded resulted in him looking as happy as we’ve seen him since his LIV debut. As the linchpin signing of the LIV operation, Mickelson has faced the brunt of questioning more than anyone — including the first 26 queries at his team’s initial presser in London this summer. But with each tournament that passes come fewer and fewer questions about the guaranteed money he’s accepted, where it’s coming from and what role it plays in burnishing the global reputation of Saudi Arabia. Even fewer of those questions will come in Thailand (where LIV is headed next) and then surely none a week later in Jeddah.

Mickelson’s 66 could be the result of him feeling more natural in this new version of himself. It also could be the random brilliance that happens for the best players in the world. But his arrival at the scoring tent gave off the sense of a man with community.

He seemed more excited about Cameron Tringale’s finish than Tringale himself. Mickelson was delayed in signing his card because of a pit stop to talk with teammate Matthew Wolff. The 23-year-old shot 72 and told Mickelson he “couldn’t make a f—king birdie.” He wasn’t lying: 18 pars. Mickelson was locked in on every word, his Hy Flyers having not yet sniffed a team title. He keenly reminded Wolff that it would likely net them a tie for third. “That would be a great momentum spurt for us,” Mickelson said, and it ended up becoming true: $250,000 to each of the Hy Flyers.

Phil Mickelson walks during the final round of the LIV Golf Invitational Sunday in Illinois.

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Perhaps most interesting about this hyper-attentive version of captain Mickelson was that it would have played so well next week in Charlotte. The 51-year-old was the fan favorite among everyone at last year’s Ryder Cup, Michael Jordan included. Golf spectators have a low standard for intimacy, and Mickelson’s thumbs seem sufficient. It was true in Wisconsin and just as true in Illinois.

Alas, here we are. Wherever that is. “A long way” from 12 months ago.

Despite carding the best round of his 2022 year, Mickelson declined to speak with the media — even LIV Golf’s own website editor — as he packed up and left. Before long he exited the clubhouse with a black and red duffel over his right shoulder, talking through various shots with his coach Andrew Getson. A security guard walked in front of them and another trailed behind as Mickelson got into the driver’s seat of a white Yukon Denali, started up the engine and peeled away. Over the next two hours, a string of private jets took off from the nearby Aurora Regional airport, many of them flying right past Charlotte, on a beeline for West Palm Beach, Fla.

The author welcomes your comments, concerns, and any other notes at sean.zak@golf.com.

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Sean Zak

Golf.com Editor

Zak is a writer and host for various GOLF.com video properties and podcasts. Check out his travels on Destination Golf and his latest thoughts on the Drop Zone Podcast:

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