ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — There are two dozen LIV Golf players on the course at the 150th Open Championship. Dustin Johnson is here; in fact, for a brief moment on Friday afternoon, he was your absolute leader, at nine under par. Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Sergio Garcia are also present. The same goes for Poults, Westy and Blandy. To say they were treated like pariahs at the Old Course, in the shadow of the imposing Royal & Ancient clubhouse, would be an overstatement. But neither were they welcomed with open arms.
Greg Norman, vocal leader of LIV and proud owner of two Claret Jugs, was told by the R&A to stay home this week. Mickelson, winner of the Open in 2013, was not officially blacklisted from the former champions’ festivities on Monday and Tuesday, but he was strongly encouraged not to attend. On the 1st tee Thursday, Poulter heard something you hardly ever hear from the reserved and respectful open galleries: boos.
Not a single LIV player – not Phil, not DJ, not King Louis, a former Open winner at the Old Course – was invited to the media center to attend a pre-tournament press conference. None were assigned what could be described as a marquee start time either. Mickelson was in the fifth group on Thursday with Lucas Herbert and Kurt Kitayama. Patrick Reed, who this week has LIV branding on his shirt sleeve, collar and hat, left with Tom Hoge and JooHyung Kim. Westwood, historically a crowd favorite at the Open, has played with JT 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 the media on Wednesday, he needed no prompting from reporters to reveal his feelings about the LIV movement. Nearing the top of his opening remarks, Slumbers said, “Before we kick off the press conference, I would like to touch briefly on a topic that is no doubt on most of your minds.” He was not 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 pattern we’ve seen at Centurion and Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interest of the sport in as a whole and is entirely motivated by money. We believe this undermines the merit-based culture and open competitive spirit that makes golf so special. I would also like to say that in my opinion the ongoing comment that it is about developing the game is simply not credible and hurts the perception of our sport that we work so hard to improve.
It’s hard to say if the R&A’s cold shoulder – and the steady pace of LIV-related questions at player press conferences – has affected LIV pros. But if the standings through two rounds is any indication, at least some of them seem fearless. Among the LIV’ers in the red and in the hunt are DJ (nine cents), Talor Gooch (seven cents), Abraham Ancer (five cents), Poulter and Westwood (both four cents).
After his 69 in the second round, Gooch was asked if the LIV players had been galvanized by the icy reception of the R&A.
“Yes, of course,” he said. “Everyone, it seems, is against us, and that’s okay. As you said, it kind of brought us together, I think.
Band of LIV brothers.
You could see these cliques in action during practice rounds earlier this week. Garcia played with Ancer. Poulter and Bland joined Sam Horsfield. Mickelson left with fellow LIV’ers Garcia, Bernd Wiesberger and LIV newbie Paul Casey. There’s no designated LIV section in player meals (as far as we know), but you can’t help but wonder if that’s coming next.
PGA Tour faithful like Justin Thomas and Billy Horschel have said they feel betrayed by players who haven’t been candid about why they jumped ship for LIV (i.e. the money) . But it’s unclear whether the turmoil actually uprooted personal relationships.
At the Scottish Open last week, Thomas said of being grouped with players from LIV: “If I know all four of them, then that’s fine. It will be easy. But even if I don’t, I don’t necessarily think we’re going to be playing games or goading each other.
Padraig Harrington said he wouldn’t let the LIV strain ruin his friendships, likening the friction to something you might experience with extended family on Thanksgiving. “You could be Republican, they could be Democrats,” he said a few weeks ago. “But you’re friends then, and maybe politics isn’t mentioned at the dinner table.”
Read: Don’t talk about LIV in the locker room.
Westwood wasn’t as diplomatic when he spoke to reporters after his first round on Thursday. Asked about Tiger Woods’ scolding of LIV earlier this week, Westwood said, “He has a vested interest, doesn’t he? LIV players will talk about LIV. PGA Tour players who are not on the LIV Tour will talk about the PGA Tour and stop the LIV Tour. I don’t pay too much for people’s opinions.
To which a reporter said, “But he says the players who went to LIV turned their backs on whoever created them.”
Westwood: “Tiger is entitled to his opinion.”
A key question hanging over the LIV drama is whether LIV players will be kicked out of majors. There is no indication that they will be, but there is also no indication that they will not be. The question largely hinges on whether LIV is accredited by the Official World Golf Rankings; if that happens, Norman said, “everything takes care of itself”.
In the meantime, players are taking a wait-and-see approach.
Gooch, 30, who is only playing 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 that it could potentially be his last Open start.
“I mean, it would be cool to hang out,” he said. “Let’s hope not, though.
“I’d like to think that the majors would like the best players in the world to play in their events despite everything that’s going on, but obviously that’s not up to me. It’s up to other people. I hope it won’t be my last.
Presumably, Dustin Johnson feels the same way. Johnson is playing this week in his 13th Open; four times he has finished in the top 10, including a runner-up in 2011. He said he fell in love with golf when he first visited the UK in his senior year in Coastal Carolina. “I love how it makes you think about every shot, where you want to hit it, where you want the ball to end up,” he said.
After posting a five under 67 on Friday, Johnson was asked the same question as Gooch: were he and other LIV players near the top of the leaderboard galvanized by anti-LIV rhetoric?
“I don’t really know what you’re talking about,” he said. “For me, obviously, they’re all good players and they’re playing well this week.”
Garcia also asked himself the same question. He was even more dismissive.
“I don’t care what they say,” he said.