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As USGA Debates Saudi Threat, Golf Could Fall Before Acting

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — Wednesday at the US Open is traditionally when (North American) golf’s leadership descends from its legendary ivory tower to deliver a state of the nation and answer questions about its premier championship. At the 122nd Open, the USGA preamble was so heavy that another handful of hilltop competitors could have limped to LIV Golf before questions were asked by the assembled media, some of which were even about the tournament.

The result was a Triple ‘A’ day at The Country Club.

The first ‘A’ was affability, as Mike Whan, in his first Open as CEO of the USGA, used his trademark enthusiasm and good humor to convey a fresher image of his outfit, less stuffy, less likely to choke on his tie. Whan has a lot of progressive ideas and he summed them up, if not briefly, with commendable conviction.

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The second ‘A’ was alliance building, specifically as it relates to the process around remote debate, which in a more nostalgic era was considered the thorniest issue in golf.

“It’s slow and deliberate and it’s designed to make sure we don’t sneak up on anyone,” Whan said 30 minutes into a slow and deliberate news conference, marking the moment he first touched on an issue his audience wanted to hear. “It’s designed to make sure that we have to stop at every step and create a listening period.”

The most recurring ‘A’ of the day was evasion, manifested in Whan’s obvious reluctance to be dragged too soon into a war that isn’t his, or pinned down in actions he might take when he was inevitably drafted into combat.

Explaining his decision to allow golfers allied with the Saudi-funded LIV Golf series (and subsequently suspended by the PGA Tour) to compete at the US Open, Whan deflected with the consummate skill of a veteran political candidate. “In February, 30 guys played for the same promoter in Saudi Arabia with a decent pitch from the PGA Tour, and for years the DP World Tour has had an event there, the same promoter,” he said.

“We also had to ask the question, if you’re going to put that kind of clause, who gets in, we have to go back to 9,300 people. It becomes quite a slippery slope trying to apply that to 9,300 people,” she added, referring to the number of participants who originally signed up for the championship.

It was a clever evasion. The dilemma involves not 9,300 people, not even the 156 who actually came to this Boston suburb, but only the 15 LIV players on the field. And the “promoter,” to use Whan’s nondescript term, is a subsidiary of a sovereign wealth fund that is financing a hostile takeover of professional gaming. Whan worked valiantly to create the impression that the decision to expel the 15 Saudis was simply too administratively challenging when, in fact, it was simply too controversial and legally precarious.

Any attempt to bounce the MBS boys would have been, in Ian Poulter’s jargon, a bit earlier. Whan knows that the sands are moving quickly on the Saudi issue, that others are better positioned to act first, and that the time when the USGA can be most effective is not far off.

“To be honest with you, what we’re talking about was different two years ago, and it was different two months ago than it is today,” he said. “We’re not going to be a knee-jerk reaction.”

Stakeholders in Riyadh and Ponte Vedra were surely anxiously scrutinizing Whan’s words for signs of support, and there were some. If and when the USGA circles behind Jay Monahan and the PGA Tour, it will be more difficult for LIV golfers to compete in the US Open, something significant since the Saudis have assured any potential recruits that they can go on to compete in majors. Whan confirmed that he was open to reviewing the parameters used to qualify (or disqualify) future Open competitors, just not for the ’22 edition, whose criteria had already been published and executed.

“As we would any year, we are definitely going to re-evaluate the field criteria. We would do it any year. We will take a look at what the landscape looks like,” she said.

And will PGA Tour suspensions get your attention when drafting that criteria?

“They already did,” he replied. “He caught our eye for this championship.”

Whan’s comments provided scant support for the Saudis, but also left an unmistakable sense that the professional game might have disappeared under the waves of whataboutism and sportwashing before any USGA life rafts are launched. The next crest of this crisis lies just beyond the close of this championship, which is why today demanded more than vague hints about future solidarity. Golf fans opposed to seeing the sport auctioned off to MBS needed a strong voice to speak out today. It was not heard.

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