BROOKLINE, Mass. — “You got any scoops for me?”
Joaquin Niemann grinned from the edge of the putting green.
This has become the theme of U.S. Open week. Who knows what? The media wants inside info from the players. That’s typical. But these days the players want inside info from the media, too. LIV’s Saudi-backed breakaway tour has swiped big-time names from the PGA Tour — Misters Mickelson, DeChambeau, Johnson, Reed and more — and now there’s an obvious question: Who’s next?
“Everyone wants to know what’s going on and who’s going and who’s not going,” Matthew Fitzpatrick said earlier in the week.
Hence Niemann’s question.
But I had one of my own. What were his plans? For several months, Niemann’s name has been mixed in among the rumored. Sergio Garcia, who played in last week’s LIV event, has long been among Niemann’s golfing mentors. The two also share an agent.
Niemann confirmed he’s not looking to make the leap, though.
“Nothing to tell from me. I want to do my best to beat all these guys,” he said, gesturing across the practice area, where top-ranked players dotted the scene. “They’re still here and as long as they’re here, I’m not going anywhere. No chance.”
Niemann is among the Tour’s youngest, most talented stars. The Chilean golfer, who won the Genesis Invitational in February, is just 23 years old and is ranked No. 17 in the world; nobody younger is ranked higher. He’s the type of player who would make a splash at LIV, which is thus far mostly populated by golfers past their competitive peaks. But not now.
“If I was 40? Maybe it would be different,” Niemann concluded.
LIV has now snagged an all-time great in Phil Mickelson. It has Ryder Cup legends in Garcia, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood. It has Masters champs including Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel. It has made a notable dent in the world rankings. But the next step for Greg Norman’s breakaway series would be to lock down a top player at the peak of his powers. Johnson, at No. 16 in the world, is currently the circuit’s top-ranked pro, followed by DeChambeau (No. 29) and Kevin Na (No. 33). Rumors swirl around other big names. They hear the swirl.
“Honestly, I’m so happy. You actually asked me,” Xander Schauffele said. “You’re the first one. No. I’m not going. I want to play against the best players in the world, and they’re on the PGA Tour. Nobody that has left has moved the needle for me.”
Not everybody was quite as eager to have the discussion. Brooks Koepka, whose brother, Chase, was in the LIV field last week, snapped back at one reporter who asked if he’d consider making the jump.
“I haven’t given it that much thought,” he said. “I don’t understand. I’m trying to focus on the U.S. Open, man. I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversations. I’m tired of all this stuff. Like I said, y’all are throwing a black cloud on the U.S. Open. I think that sucks. I actually do feel bad for them for once because it’s a s—– situation. We’re here to play, and you are talking about a [LIV] event that happened last week.”
Collin Morikawa bristled at the same subject.
“One of my best friends just texted me about this tweet from a random account saying, hey, there’s these rumors,” he said. “It’s crazy to see and hear all these rumors because that’s what they are, right? I can read all these things, but everyone tells their kids don’t believe what’s on the internet. That’s what we’re doing. That’s exactly what we’re doing right now.”
Morikawa’s comments were a reminder that beyond the Rory McIlroys, Justin Thomases and Jon Rahms of the world there is a layer of Tour pros that would prefer not to think much about other tours at all, never mind address their dynamics in press conferences.
“Who doesn’t like gossip, right? But it also becomes a distraction, and you don’t want to be focused on this or that,” he said. “You want to be focused on playing golf. I’m not going to blame it on any part of my golf game. Put that aside. But it is an extra distraction on thinking about this, thinking about that and worrying about who is going to ask what.”
There’s the conundrum. Those who haven’t been asked want to be, just so they can set the record straight. Others, who field questions constantly, are sick of the sideshow it has created. Some players are undecided on their futures. Others, like Johnson or DeChambeau or Pat Perez, were outwardly committed to the PGA Tour — right until they weren’t.
One thing’s for sure: The questions aren’t going away. This represents a seismic shift in the status of men’s professional golf. As a result, everyone’s curious. Some PGA Tour pros are hoping nobody else leaves because they’re worried about the preservation of their tour. Others are simultaneously unsure about leaving while also reluctant to miss the massive guaranteed cash getting handed out. So the chatter continues.
“I’m sure it’s the same with y’all. You can’t go anywhere without somebody bringing it up,” Thomas told the media early in the week. “It’s sad. This is the U.S. Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many storylines, and yet that seems to be what all the questions are about.”
Thursday morning means real, counting golf shots. It means simpler storylines about birdies and bogeys and rough and greens. The beginning of the U.S. Open means that players — and fans, and media — have somewhere else to focus their attention.
The rumors will roll on in the background.