‘Everybody, it feels like, is against us’: LIV tension surfacing at Open Championship
ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — There are two-dozen LIV Golf players in the field at the 150th Open Championship. Dustin Johnson is here; in fact, for a brief while Friday afternoon, he was your outright leader, at nine under par. Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia are here, too. Same goes for Poults, Westy and Blandy. To say they’ve been treated like outcasts at the Old Course, in the shadows of the imposing Royal & Ancient clubhouse, would be an overstatement. But they haven’t exactly been embraced with open arms, either.
Greg Norman, LIV’s vocal leader and proud owner of two Claret Jugs, was told by the R&A to stay home this week. Mickelson, an Open winner in 2013, was not officially blacklisted from the past-champion festivities on Monday and Tuesday, but he was strongly encouraged not to attend. On the 1st tee on Thursday, Poulter heard something you virtually never hear from the reserved and respectful Open galleries: boos.
Nary a single LIV player — not Phil, nor DJ, nor King Louis, a past Open winner at the Old Course — was invited into the media center to sit for a pre-tournament press conference. None were assigned what might be described as a marquee tee time, either. Mickelson was in the fifth group out on Thursday with Lucas Herbert and Kurt Kitayama. Patrick Reed, who this week has LIV branding on his shirt sleeve, collar and hat, went off with Tom Hoge and JooHyung Kim. Westwood, historically a crowd favorite at the Open, played with J.T. Poston and Stephen Dodd. Garcia, Bland and Oosthuizen were all grouped with amateurs.
But wait, there’s more! When R&A chief Martin Slumbers met with the media Wednesday, he required no prompting from reporters to reveal his feelings about the LIV movement. Near the top of his opening remarks, Slumbers said, “Before we get the press conference underway, I would like to briefly address a topic which is no doubt on most of your minds.” He wasn’t talking about Princess Anne’s plans to attend the Open.
Without mentioning LIV by name, Slumbers went on to say of LIV’s first two events, “I believe the model we’ve seen at Centurion and Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interests of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money. We believe it undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special. I would also like to say that in my opinion the continued commentary that this is about growing the game is just not credible and if anything, is harming the perception of our sport which we are working so hard to improve.”
Whether the R&A’s cold shoulder — and the steady drumbeat of LIV-related questions in player press conferences — has affected LIV pros is hard to say. But if the leaderboard through two rounds is any indication, at least some of them appear undaunted. Among the LIV’ers in the red, and in the hunt, are DJ (nine under), Talor Gooch (seven under), Abraham Ancer (five under), Poulter and Westwood (both four under).
After his second-round 69, Gooch was asked whether LIV players have been galvanized by the R&A’s chilly reception.
“Yeah, for sure,” he said. “Everybody, it feels like, is against us, and that’s OK. Like you said, it’s kind of banded us together, I think.”
Band of LIV brothers.
You could see those cliques in action in practice rounds earlier this week. Garcia played with Ancer. Poulter and Bland joined Sam Horsfield. Mickelson set out with fellow LIV’ers Garcia, Bernd Wiesberger and LIV newbie Paul Casey. There’s no designated LIV section in player dining (that we know of) but you can’t help but wonder if that’s coming next.
PGA Tour loyalists like Justin Thomas and Billy Horschel have spoken of feeling betrayed by players who have not been forthright about the reasons why they’ve jumped ship for LIV (i.e., money). But it’s unclear whether the turmoil has actually uprooted personal relationships.
At the Scottish Open last week, Thomas said about being grouped with LIV players: “If I know all four of them, then it will be fine. It will be easy. But even if I don’t, I don’t necessarily think we’re going to be having any gamesmanship or needling each other.”
Padraig Harrington has said he won’t let the LIV tension spoil his friendships, likening the friction to something you might encounter with extended family at Thanksgiving. “You could be a Republican, they could be a Democrat,” he said a couple of weeks ago. “But you’re friends at that particular time, and maybe politics isn’t mentioned at the dinner table.”
Read: Don’t talk LIV in the locker room.
Westwood wasn’t quite so diplomatic when speaking with reporters after his first round Thursday. When asked about Tiger Woods’ rebuke of LIV from earlier this week, Westwood said, “He’s got a vested interest, hasn’t he? The LIV players will talk up LIV. The PGA Tour players that aren’t on the LIV Tour will talk the PGA Tour up and put down the LIV tour. I don’t pay too much to people’s opinions.”
To which a reporter said, “But he’s saying players that have gone to LIV have turned their back on those who made them.”
Westwood: “Tiger’s entitled to his opinion.”
One key question looming over the LIV drama is whether LIV players will be barred from the majors. There’s no indication that they will be but there also has been no indication that they won’t. The matter hinges in large part on whether LIV is accredited by the Official World Golf Ranking; if that happens, Norman has said, “everything takes care of itself.”
Meantime, players are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Gooch, 30, who is playing in his just his second Open — he finished T33 a year ago at Royal St. George’s — was asked if he feels any “extra motivation” this week given this could potentially be his last Open start.
“I mean, it would be a cool one to go out on,” he said. “Hopefully not, though.
“I’d like to think that the majors would like to have the best players in the world playing in their events in spite of everything that’s going on, but obviously that’s not up to me. It’s up to other people. Hopefully this won’t be my last one.”
Presumably, Dustin Johnson feels the same way. Johnson this week is playing in his 13th Open; four times he has finished in the top 10, including a runner-up finish in 2011. He said he fell in love with links golf when he first visited the U.K. during his senior year at Coastal Carolina. “I like the way it makes you think on every shot, where you want to hit it, where you want the ball to end up,” he said.
After posting a five-under 67 Friday, Johnson was asked the same question that Gooch had been: Were he and the other LIV players near the top of the leaderboard galvanized by the anti-LIV rhetoric?
“I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” he said. “For me, obviously, they’re all good players and playing well this week.”
Garcia was also posed the same question. He was even more dismissive.
“I don’t care what they say,” he said.