LIV’s top Open Championship finisher wasn’t who you were expecting
HOYLAKE, England — On Sunday afternoon, LIV’s last great hope circled the 2nd green at the Open Championship.
Rain was on the horizon, but for now it was quiet. Except, of course, for the man who had been saddled with a not-insignificant chunk of the rival league’s hopes at this major championship. He paced slowly around the green, his CLEEKS GC-branded bag clattering not far behind as a group of fans watched his movements. Finally, one onlooker summoned the courage to speak.
“Who is that?” he asked.
His friend paused for a moment then said slowly:
“I think that’s…Richard Bland.”
Bland was, charitably, nobody’s first choice to lead the LIV charge at the Open Championship; most pundits leaned toward the likes of Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka or perhaps Patrick Reed. Bland, who is 50, had found his way into the golf mainstream for a brief stint in 2021, when a victory at the Betfred British Masters launched a run that included a 36-hole lead at the U.S. Open. At the time, he was an internet sensation, not the least bit because he looked as if he would be more comfortable tending bar in his British hometown of Burton on Trent than inside the ropes alongside Tiger Woods. “Blandy” rode that stretch of inspired play all the way into the top 50 in the world for a moment in 2022, but when he departed for a bundle of LIV cash, it seemed some of his relevance had, too.
For a moment on Sunday, though, Blandy was LIV’s guy. After a front-nine 34, he had moved to two under for the championship, outranking the rest of LIV’s provenance on the Open Championship leaderboard. It looked like Bland might stay in that position until another surprise LIVer made a late charge: Henrik Stenson. With three birdies in the rain in his last 10 holes, the 47-year-old Stenson ascended to three under and into to a tie for 13th to became the top Open finisher for the rival league.
Stenson’s three-under 281 for the week was still 10 back of winner Brian Harman, and the Swede was the only LIV competitor to finish within a dozen strokes of the newly minted Champion Golfer of the Year.
In short, it was not a very good week for LIV in the final major of its first full year — and a departure from the success the league enjoyed in the first three majors.
Let’s recap. At the Masters, of course, it was Phil Mickelson, Koepka and Reed flying high for the upstarts, all of whom were in the top-six finishers at Augusta. Then, at the PGA, it was Koepka again, who claimed LIV’s first major championship victory (albeit without the 18th hole full-league celebration the league once promised). At the U.S. Open, Cam Smith charged to a fourth-place finish buffeted by strong early-week performances from both Koepka and Dustin Johnson.
But at the Royal Liverpool, LIV’s players seemed to struggle to get out of neutral. Neither Koepka nor Smith nor DeChambeau nor Reed carded a score below par this weekend; Mickelson, Johnson and Talor Gooch didn’t make it to the weekend at all. And that’s to say nothing of the group including Sergio Garcia, who failed to even qualify for the event.
After so much ink was (justifiably) spilled on the status of LIV’s major success earlier this year, the Open is a noticeable exception. And while there are many reasons why that might be the case — from course fit and tee times to playing schedule — there is no arguing that truth.
The major struggles come at a particularly notable time for LIV, whose future remains murky in the wake of the framework agreement between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Public Investment Fund. Under the agreement, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan will be tasked with making the final decision on LIV’s future, and given his longstanding criticisms of both the league and its format, that task could involve shuttering the league all together. Those who compete for LIV have been told the league is safe through at least the end of the 2024 season, but the future beyond that remains unclear.
It would seem the best way to prove the league’s long-term strength is to produce a series of strong finishes in golf’s top events. On Sunday at the Open, though, the league struggled in the last opportunity to do so before the agreement is either finalized or dropped.
The LIV train rolls on from here. Its next event will come in three weeks’ time in Bedminster, N.J. — a break for the upstarts after a jam-packed summer schedule.
It won’t be an Open Championship, and after this week, that might be a welcome sight.