BROOKLINE, Mass. — Historic moments are common at the US Open, which is to be expected for a championship that was first held in 1895. But on Thursday, in the first round of the event’s 122nd play, there was a first. remarkable that would have been unthinkable even a month ago.
Fifteen golfers who recently shunned the established PGA Tour to align themselves with a Saudi-backed circuit that has recruited new members with hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives, would compete alongside players who had just left.
Oh yeah, and the national golf championship was on the line.
The setting had all the makings of a poignant emotional shock: an underlying sense of betrayal, accusations of heartless greed, the prospect of transformative change, and a popular and beloved figure caught in the darkness of the firestorm.
But it turns out that elite golf has too much decorum for all that.
Consider the scene as Phil Mickelson, the six-time major champion and best-known dropout from the LIV Golf Invitational series, prepares to begin his round. Last weekend, Mickelson, who turned 52 on Thursday, was reportedly paid $200 million to be the headliner of the rebel LIV Golf tour, whose main shareholder is the Private Investment Fund, the wealth fund. sovereign of Saudi Arabia.
As Mickelson walked past a runner of fans onto the field, he was engulfed in applause. The reception wasn’t as enthusiastic as it was a year ago, when he won the PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion in history, but it was passionate and spirited.
By the time Mickelson hit the first tee, there were shouts and whistles that had Mickelson touching his head. When the applause subsided slightly, Mickelson would resort to his trademark gesture, a smile and a hearty thumbs-up, which would reignite the applause.
Dozens of fans shouted encouragement:
“Come on Phil!”
“Come on, Lefty.”
“We love you Phil!”
The vast majority of players who have remained loyal to the PGA Tour have privately wondered in recent days if the players now working for LIV Golf might hear boos at the Country Club. That didn’t happen. Not when Dustin Johnson, the top-ranked player who joined the new league last week, played in the group before Mickelson. Johnson’s greeting was silent but still affectionate.
As for Mickelson on the opening tee, he heard nothing resembling a taunt. However, he was comically mocked by at least one fan. Mickelson has been recognized for his playing habits, something Mickelson called “reckless and embarrassing” in an interview with Sports Illustrated last week.
Just before Mickelson took his first shot Thursday, a fan on a hillside behind him yelled, “Phil, three and a half Celtics tonight, who do you like?”
Boston was listed as a 3.5-point favorite against Golden State in Game 6 of the NBA Finals on Thursday night at TD Garden just a few miles away.
As a roar of laughter erupted from the crowd, Mickelson kept his back. He then crashed a drive into the fairway and walked into the hole as fans cheered and shouted his name.
More gestures of approval. More cheers.
Earlier, on the practice course, any sense that there would be a bristling divide between players aligned with LIV Golf and those still dedicated to the PGA Tour also evaporated.
Webb Simpson, the 2012 US Open champion and a PGA Tour stalwart, approached Mickelson with a wide smile and offered him a fist bump. They chatted quietly for a few seconds. Hitting balls to Mickelson’s left was Shane Lowry, who would be playing in the same group Thursday. Lowry has been emphatic, insistent actually, that he will not join the rival tour. But on Thursday he was also chatting nicely with Mickelson and the third member of his group, Louis Oosthuizen from South Africa, who has also joined the LIV Golf series. If the foundations of professional golf are about to change, as some have feared in recent days, it wasn’t evident through the easy banter of this group, each of whom has won at least one major championship.
As Mickelson’s round unfolded, it was obvious that his game, which had been shaky for many months, had not improved. He bogeyed the first and third holes and barely recovered, firing an eight-over-par 78 that left him 12 shots behind first-round leader Adam Hadwin of Canada. Mickelson’s fans groaned after his mistakes, cheered as he walked off the green and shouted his name. One such fan who vociferously cheered for Mickelson was William Sullivan of Woburn, Massachusetts.
Asked if he was surprised or disappointed when Mickelson chose to play last week at LIV Golf’s inaugural event near London, Sullivan shook his head, saying: “Not really.”
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Recalling that the PGA Tour, the circuit on which Mickelson has earned more than $94 million, warned that any player joining LIV Golf would be suspended and perhaps permanently banned, Sullivan smiled.
“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 onto the fourth hole, a single voice called out in his direction: “Sold!”
Mickelson didn’t react.
Around the golf course Thursday, 12 groups were a mix of LIV Golf and PGA Tour players. One was made up of Spain’s Jon Rahm, the defending US Open champion, Collin Morikawa, the 2020 PGA Championship winner, and James Piot, the 2021 US amateur champion who played last week at the first LIV Golf tournament.
The group moved briskly and courteously through the Country Club layout, exhibiting all the usual courtesies golfers have: remain silent when an opponent is on the ball, remain out of sight when others are playing, move a ball mark if you’re on someone’s line. It looked like any other trio in any other first round of a major championship.
He recalled the words of Justin Thomas, a leader among young players who have pledged their support for the PGA Tour, who said earlier in the week of those who chose to join the breakaway company: “You can disagree with the decision. Maybe you can wish they would do something different. But for people at home to necessarily say that Dustin Johnson is now a bad person, that’s not fair. That is not right”.
Rahm on Tuesday said something similar. His countryman Sergio García is now an LIV golfer. When asked about Garcia’s defection, Rahm replied, “It’s none of my business.”