BROOKLINE, Mass. – Historic moments are common at the US Open, which is to be expected for a championship first held in 1895. But Thursday, in the opening round of the 122nd playing of the event, there was a notable first that would have been unthinkable even a month ago.
Fifteen golfers who recently spurned the established PGA Tour to align with an upstart, Saudi-backed circuit that has recruited new members with hundreds of millions of dollars in inducements, would compete alongside the players they had just deserted.
Oh, yes, and the national golf championship was at stake.
The setting had all the elements of a stirring, emotional clash: an underlying sense of betrayal, accusations of soulless greed, the prospect of transformative change and a popular, beloved figure trapped in the cynosure of the firestorm.
But it turns out elite golf has too much decorum for all that.
Consider the scene as Phil Mickelson, the six-time major champion and the best-known defector to the LIV Golf Invitational series, prepared to begin his round. Last weekend, Mickelson, who turned 52 on Thursday, was reportedly paid 200 million to be the star attraction of the rebel LIV Golf tour, whose major shareholder is the Private Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia.
As Mickelson walked past a corridor of fans towards the course, he was enveloped in applause. The reception was not as zealously enthusiastic as it was a year ago, when he won the PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion ever, but it was passionate and animated.
By the time Mickelson stepped onto the first tee, there were whoops and whistles that had Mickelson tipping his cap. When the applause would diminish slightly, Mickelson turned to his trademark gesture – a smile and a hearty thumbs up – that would reignite the ovation.
Dozens of fans yelled encouragement:
“Let’s go, Lefty.”
“We love you, Phil!”
The considerable majority of players who have remained loyal to the PGA Tour had privately wondered in recent days if the players now working for LIV Golf might hear booing at the Country Club. That did not occur. Not when Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked player to join the new league last week, teed off in the group before Mickelson. Johnson’s greeting was muted but still affectionate.
As for Mickelson on the opening tee, he did not hear anything close to jeering. He was, however, at least teased comically by one fan. Mickelson has been renowned for his gambling habits, something Mickelson called “reckless and embarrassing” in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week.
Just before Mickelson struck his first shot Thursday, a fan on a hillside behind him bellowed: “Phil, Celtics three-and-a-half tonight, who do you like?”
Boston was tabbed as a 3.5-point favorite against Golden State in Game 6 of the NBA finals Thursday night at TD Garden just a few miles away.
While a roar of laughter erupted from the crowd, Mickelson kept his back turned. Then he smashed a drive onto the fairway and walked towards the hole as fans cheered and called his name.
More thumbs-up gestures. More cheers.
Earlier, on the practice range, any sense that there would be a bristling division between the LIV Golf-aligned players and those still devoted to the PGA Tour evaporated as well.
Webb Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion and a PGA Tour stalwart, approached Mickelson with a wide smile and offered a fist bump. They conversed easily for a few seconds. Hitting balls to the left of Mickelson was Shane Lowry, who would be playing in the same group on Thursday. Lowry has been emphatic – insistent really – that he will not join the rival tour. But Thursday he was also chatting pleasantly with Mickelson and the third member of their group, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, who has also joined the LIV Golf series. If the underpinnings of professional golf are indeed on the verge of being upended, as some have feared in recent days, it was not evident through the easy banter of this group, who have each won at least one major championship.
As Mickelson’s round unfolded, it was obviously his game, which has been unsteady for many months, had not improved. He bogeyed the first and third holes and barely recovered, shooting an eight-over-par 78, which left him 12 strokes behind the first-round leader, Adam Hadwin of Canada. Mickelson’s fans groaned after his misses, clapped as he left the green and called out his name. One of those fans loudly encouraging Mickelson was William Sullivan of Woburn, Mass.
Asked if he was surprised, or disappointed, when Mickelson chose to play last week in the inaugural LIV Golf event near London, Sullivan shook his head and said: “Not really.”
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Reminded that the PGA Tour, the circuit where Mickelson has earned more than million 94 million, warned that any player joining LIV Golf would be suspended and perhaps permanently banned, Sullivan grinned.
“Yeah, but what did they offer Phil – $ 200 million, right?” Sullivan asked. “Who wouldn’t take 200 million? I mean, to play golf? ”
As Mickelson turned toward the fourth hole, a single voice shouted in his direction: “Sellout!”
Mickelson did not react.
Around the golf course on Thursday, 12 groups were a mix of LIV Golf and PGA Tour players. One comprised Jon Rahm of Spain, the defending US Open champion, Collin Morikawa, the winner of the 2020 PGA Championship, and James Piot, the 2021 US Amateur champion who played last week in the first LIV Golf tournament.
The group moved briskly and civilly around the Country Club layout, exhibiting all the usual courtesies that golfers do – remaining quiet when an opponent is over the ball, staying out of sight when others are putting, moving a ball mark if it is in someone’s line . It looked like any other threesome in any other first round of a major championship.
It recalled the words of Justin Thomas, a leader among the young players who have pledged their support for the PGA Tour, who said earlier in the week about those who have chosen to join the breakaway venture: “You can disagree with the decision. You can probably wish that they did something differently. But for people at home to necessarily say that Dustin Johnson is now a bad person, that’s not fair. That’s just not right. “
Rahm on Tuesday said something similar. His countryman Sergio Garcia is now a LIV golfer. Asked about Garcia’s defection, Rahm replied: “Not my business.”