US Open can’t escape ‘black cloud’ of golf’s civil war

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Phil Mickelson signs autographs during a practice round at the US Open (Getty)
Phil Mickelson signs autographs during a practice round at the US Open (Getty)

If Brooks Koepka could play golf with the same enthusiasm as he snarls, he might be vying to become one of the greatest players in history. Instead, over the course of eight and a half thorny minutes, he was adamant that the “black cloud” hanging over this week’s US Open was not a product of the fire being stoked by LIV Golf but a media fixation. “I haven’t given it that much thought,” he insisted, even after it was pointed out that his brother, Chase, was part of the inaugural field in Hertfordshire last week.

Perhaps the Saudi-backed breakaway can buy a smile from Koepka, who offered little in the way of assurances he won’t be the next PGA Tour player to jump ship. “There’s been no other option to this point, so where else are you going to go?” he said. But the price of silence is one even all the oil in the world cannot afford and the incessant speculation about the battle for golf’s future will continue to cast a shadow long after the opening tee shot is struck on Thursday morning in Massachusetts.

It could be considered a shame for the US Open, with a major returning to Brookline for the first time since the infamous 1999 Ryder Cup. Ordinarily, the build-up would have focused on the pandemonium that ensued following Justin Leonard’s (not-yet) winning putt or whether Bryson DeChambeau’s biceps were still an existential threat to golf.

Instead, the world is watching on with fascination and horror as the Saudis dangle hundreds of millions and turn the sport into a geopolitical battleground. The levels of interest and intrigue in the tournament have increased dramatically as players take sides – or remain suspiciously quiet – while the public waits to see which dominoes will fall next. “It’s obviously the talk of the tour at the minute,” said Matt Fitzpatrick. “Everyone wants to know what’s going on and who’s going and who’s not going.”

Some of those questions will be answered when LIV makes its first stop in the US at the end of this month. Clearly, though, it is already a competitor in the field this week. Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas are the favourites and de facto flagbearers for continued loyalty to the PGA Tour after their gripping shootout at the Canadian Open last Sunday. “I tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep thinking about what could potentially happen,” Thomas said on Tuesday of the tour’s future.

Jon Rahm, the defending champion, went on the offensive too, using his press conference to lambast the 54-hole shotgun start format of LIV events and insisting no amount of money could persuade him to tarnish his legacy. “Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I made and I’d live a very happy life and not play golf again,” he said. “I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game and I want to play against the best in the world.”

Sadly, that is not a viewpoint shared by all and being labelled “stooges” by Amnesty or being accused of betrayal by a group of 9/11 survivors hasn’t trigged any sort of moral epiphany with a number of players. The ghost currently inhabiting Phil Mickelson received a warm reception in Boston during his practice rounds, while Dustin Johnson, DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are all very capable of being in contention come Sunday. They have stumbled anaemically through questions about their character and then taken refuge in the vast vaults of their recently engorged bank accounts. If one of them is to win this week, it would represent a nightmare scenario for the PGA Tour, which has been unable to find a legal avenue to block LIV players from competing in the majors.

The subplots make this one of the most anticipated US Opens in recent memory, and a course renowned for one of the sport’s great battles is now playing host to a fight for its very future. The 156 players competing for a place in history will be front and centre over the course of the next four days, but the Saudi incursion won’t be forced into the background either. There is too much at stake and, with both sides refusing to cede any ground, the fissure running through golf’s heart is only getting deeper by the day. Against that backdrop, whether McIlroy can end his major drought or Scottie Scheffler can become just the sixth player in history to win the Masters and US Open in the same year feels reduced to an afterthought. Koepka might be “tired of all this stuff”, but golf’s civil war has only just begun and he is at the front line of it along with every other player, even if that only elicits a miserable shrug.

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