Discover more from The Sports Column
FEUDS, F-BOMBS, CHAOS: WHAT HAVE THE SAUDIS DONE TO OUR U.S. OPEN?
Golf’s four major championships must protect their dignity and honor by banning Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and other LIV defectors, as this week’s event in Boston braces for possible mayhem
Is that Dana White, peeking into the clubhouse at The Country Club? Is he holding a microphone and directing workers to assemble an Octagon by the 18th green? He once planted his UFC seeds in Boston, after all, while eluding Southie mobsters such as Whitey Bulger, so what stops him from making his way to leafy Brookline, even if the club is so prim and private that Tom Brady wasn’t admitted for two years due to paparazzi fears?
Think I’m kidding? All the 122nd U.S. Open lacks is a goading promoter to set up a combat cage card — Phil Mickelson vs. Jay Monahan, Greg Norman vs. Rory McIlroy, the LIV Golf Series traitors vs. the PGA Tour loyalists, with a few Saudis lurking in a delusional attempt to whitewash their human rights atrocities by pumping oil megabillions into a rival league. We’d invite Jim Nantz to narrate, but he’s too distraught to gush and goo, already dropping a big word — “betrayal” — in chiding Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and others who’ve defected to LIV in the name of greed, defiance and the anti-American way.
And to hear Justin Thomas, who has joined Tiger Woods and McIlroy among the upstanding majority that recognizes the Tour mechanism as the difference-maker in their one-percenter lives, it’s all so very tragic and upsetting. What always has made the golf majors so special in the totality of sports — clean, virtuous, proper, proud — is disrupted this week by a scandal concentrated on dirty money and the horrific crimes of the Saudi Arabia government. Other than the occasional rules violation or, of course, the turbulent misadventures now apparently in Woods’ past, golf normally isn’t wrecked by scandals like the sport whose seasonal months it shares, Major League Baseball.
But the geopolitical street brawl is a disgrace that has shaken golf as we’ve known it, including the major tournaments that won’t ever be the same, along with the sport’s other must-watch event, the Ryder Cup. At the forefront is Mickelson, once the beloved Everyman who thumbs-upped his way into gullible hearts — and now viewed as a Saudi sympathizer who has so embraced LIV that he might want to employ a security detail this week. His tag-team partner is Norman, who continues to shame his legacy by describing the Saudi initiative as “a force for good.” When we should be analyzing who wins our national championship, we’re wondering whether McIlroy and Johnson will have a throwdown and at what point the crude New Englanders in the gallery — you’ve heard those “F— you, Draymond!” chants a few miles way at TD Garden during the NBA Finals — will turn the four days into utter chaos. Will the hosting body, the U.S. Golf Association, have to summon the National Guard?
Heavens to Ben Hogan, what have they done to the Open? Let me be the first to petition the USGA, the Royal & Ancient (overlords of the British Open), the PGA of America (which runs the PGA Championship) and the green jackets at Augusta National (the Masters) and demand an across-the-board majors ban of all LIV participants, including past majors champions. Do they really want this level of disarray year after year? Does the Augusta membership, including titans of industry and other influential Americans, really want to approve players aligned with a Saudi scheme?
Johnson seemed to imply the Masters will be inviting him next April, saying, “I’ve definitely talked to them, but you’re going to have to ask somebody from the Masters.”
Please, eject them like any other rude interlopers. Will they really want to LIV it up when their dreams of winning majors are snatched away?
We must save the majors from the Saudis.
“You can't go anywhere without somebody bringing it up. It’s sad,” said Thomas, whose recent PGA Championship win has been all but forgotten. “This is the U.S. Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many storylines, and yet that seems to be what all the questions are about. That's unfortunate.”
So shattered is the golf community, formerly a convivial place, it’s fair to ask how anyone will focus on tee shots, irons and putting. The idea of a renegade tour taking flight has sickened many. “I tossed and turned and lost a lot of sleep thinking about what could potentially happen,” Thomas said of the opening LIV voyage. “I grew up my entire life wanting to play the PGA Tour, wanting to break records, make history, play in Presidents Cups, play in Ryder Cups, and the fact that things like that could potentially get hurt because of some of the people that are leaving and if more go, it's just sad. It makes me sad. I've grown up my entire life wanting to do that, and I don't want to do anything else. The people who have gone, they're entitled to make that decision. Not that I agree with it, but everything's got a price, I guess.”
It reached the point Tuesday where Brooks Koepka, the four-time major champion, lashed out at media for devoting so much attention to the LIV Series that launched last weekend, rather garishly, outside of London. “I'm ready to play the U.S. Open, and I think it kind of sucks, too, you are all throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open,” he said. “It's one of my favorite events. I don't know why you guys keep doing that. The more legs you give (LIV Golf), the more you keep talking about it. … I legitimately don't get it. I'm tired of the conversations. I'm tired of all this stuff. I think that sucks. I actually do feel bad for the (USGA) for once because it's a s—ty situation. We're here to play, and you are talking about an event that happened last week."
The furor is only beginning, alas. With no interest in turning a profit or anything but drawing attention to its golfing venture — actually believing we’ll overlook the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the repression of women and gays, and that Osama bin Laden was among 15 Saudi attackers on Sept. 11, 2001 — Saudi Arabia will keep luring Tour scabs with untold riches from its Public Investment Fund. So far, the only huge-name rats are Mickelson and Johnson. But with the well-known likes of DeChambeau and Reed jumping, too, how many more players will take the alternate path of bigger purses, guaranteed appearance fees and 54-hole weekends in a shorter and more manageable time frame? Who else will grab the blood money, while disregarding the filth and schlock of LIV?
It’s a damned shame the Open has to suffer the brunt of the hot-blooded spillover. Mickelson is hellbent to merge the freedoms of remaining on the Tour while playing in LIV events, even after Monahan played the rightful role of hardass commissioner in suspending all 17 Tour members who took part in the inaugural LIV circus. Phil tried his best to be a diplomat at his Open press conference, but his all-black ensemble and facial scruff sent an unmistakable message: He’s a rebel who doesn’t care if you hate him, refusing to apologize or reconsider even as he acknowledged a “poor job of conveying” his reasons. What’s there to convey, really? He took the $200 million bonus and ran, maybe to the closest sportsbook, given his recent admission of a long-suspected gambling problem.
“My preference is to be able to choose which path I would like, one or the other or both,” Mickelson said. “I feel that I gave as much back to the PGA Tour and the game of golf that I could throughout my 30 years here, and through my accomplishments on the course I've earned a lifetime membership. I intend to keep that and then choose going forward which events to play and not.”
When asked about a powerful letter sent to all LIV participants by Terry Strada, a 9/11 widow with three children — she accused him and the others of becoming “complicit with their whitewash and help give them the reputational cover they so desperately crave” — Mickelson didn’t commit to speaking or meeting with the family. “I think I speak for pretty much every American in that we feel the deepest of sympathy and the deepest of empathy for those that have lost loved ones, friends in 9/11,” Mickelson said. “It affected all of us, and those that have been directly affected, I think I can't emphasize enough how much empathy I have for them.”
How about saying, “Yes, I’d be honored to meet with them,” Phil?
Nah, he keeps digging himself more image divots and inviting criticism from PGA Tour diehards. When McIlroy won the Canadian Open for his 21st career Tour win Sunday, he was well aware that he’d passed Norman, the LIV ringleader and sellout to humanity. “Today is something I’ll remember for a long, long time. I had extra motivation of what's going on across the pond," said the four-time major champ. “The guy that's spearheading that tour has 20 wins on the PGA Tour and I was tied with him, and I wanted to get one ahead of him. And I did. So that was really cool for me, just a little sense of pride on that one.”
He followed by shipping up to Boston — a Dropkick Murphys reference — and continuing his verbal assault on those who’ve taken the “easy way out” in joining LIV Golf. Momentarily giving Mickelson a break because his “best days are behind (him)” at nearly 52, with a birthday Thursday, McIlroy took aim at the millennial likes of Johnson and DeChambeau, who’d originally pledged Tour loyalty.
“I don't understand the guys that are a similar age to me going. Because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and I think theirs are, too. So that's where it feels like you're taking the easy way out,” McIlroy said. “I guess I took a lot of players' statements at face value. I guess that's what I got wrong. You had people committed to the PGA Tour, and that's what the statements that were put out. People went back on that, so I guess I took them for face value.”
Then McIlroy went political. The furthest thought from his mind was how to win his second U.S. Open, which is awful for the sport and the millions of viewers who tune in to the big ones. “I think everything that's happening with this (LIV) tour, it legitimizes their place in the world,” he said of the Saudi rulers. “We're talking about this in such a generalized way. I've spent a lot of time in the Middle East, and the vast majority of people that I've met there are very, very nice people, but there's bad people everywhere. The bad people that came from that part of the world did some absolutely horrendous things. It's a very convoluted world right now. I have friends that have lost people in 9/11, and it's a really tragic thing. I empathize with those families, and I certainly understand their concerns and frustrations with it all.
“Look,” he said of the defectors, “they all have the choice to play where they want to play, and they've made their decision. My dad said to me a long time ago, ‘Once you make your bed, you lie in it,’ and they've made their bed. That's their decision, and they have to live with that.”
No matter how much Saudi money is thrown at sportswashing — $600 billion has been reported, to our collective vomiting — it’s hard to believe the LIV Series will exist in three years without considerable growth. Just because $4.75 million was handed to last week’s winner, Charl Schwartzel, doesn’t mean many people cared. Without a legitimate TV or streaming deal, who’s watching? And when the number of prominent players is exceeded by at least six players ranked outside the top 1,000, where’s the pomp and circumstance? What’s the purpose of devoting time and energy? The tens of tens who did show up were greeted by loud music (Katy Perry’s “Firework”), neon scoreboards and messages such as “DON’T BLINK” and “GOLF BUT LOUDER.” The head of the Public Investment Fund, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, went so far to offer $54 million to anyone who shoots 54 (LIV is 54 in roman numerals). Never mind that no one in organized golf ever has shot better than 58.
So it could be a case of simply waiting out the Saudis. Said defending Open champ Jon Rahm: “Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. So 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. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.” In the meantime, the majors must protect their dignity and honor. Woods has chosen to protect his, rejecting almost $1 billion. Jack Nicklaus rejected more than $100 million to lead LIV before Norman accepted the CEO gig.
“The PGA Tour,” as McIlroy pointed out, “was created by people and tour players that came before us, the likes of Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer. They created something and worked hard for something, and I hate to see all the players that came before us and all the hard work that they've put in just come out to be nothing.”
We should have paid attention in 2004, when Mickelson finally won the Masters and executed his three-inch vertical leap, then wrote a book titled, “One Magical Sunday.”
The subtitle: “(But Winning Isn’t Everything).”
We could laugh but we’re too busy crying. Almost two decades later, Everyman has tumbled into the deepest bunker known to golf. Let’s hope he doesn’t drag an entire ecosystem with him. The majors, much bigger than any collection of rogues, must unite and stop the landslide.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.