by Martin Rogers
Fox Sports Columnist
There’s a lot to love about golf’s Open Championship, otherwise known as the British Open (only to Americans and to the disapproval of Brits).
The charm of an event played for 150 years multiplies when the rotating schedule turns, as it did this year, on the Old Course at St. Andrews, the game’s custodian home steeped in glorious history.
Tiger Woods fell in love with the place early in his career and still refuses to stay anywhere other than Room 269 at the Old Golf Course Hotel, out of respect for the shots he took to win the Open in 2000.
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Bunkers, a staple on any course, originate here. And if it weren’t for those holes made by local sheep seeking refuge from the howl of Scotland’s east coast, they might never have become part of the fabric of golf.
St Andrews is a sporting pilgrimage. Golf has been played there for so long that historical figures have teed off around the weathered links – even Mary Queen of Scots frequented the course.
This is where the disciples of the game go in droves, and not just during tournaments. Those who have played there say it’s golf like no other, as if a magical spell has fallen over the old game.
This is a place that, frankly, should be immune to petty squabbles. Unfortunately, when play began at the Open on Thursday, it was not.
The outrage certainly revolved around the presence of groups of golfers from the isolated LIV Tour. It’s a “must” because no golf story is complete these days without a word from LIV. Such is the uproar created by the group, fronted by former Open champion Greg Norman, which is controversially funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund amid claims of “sportswashing”.
Norman has prodded and poked at the golf establishment at every turn, and some of his comments, particularly in defense of his employers, have sorely missed the mark. However, at least this week, it is not the upstart league but the hallowed body of Royal & Ancient (R&A) – which oversees St Andrews and is one of golf’s governing bodies – that is acting in a way that does not suit its status.
For the Championship, the R&A has not enforced any restrictions banning LIV players – there are 23 of them here – although defectors have been handed bans by the PGA Tour’s fiercest leaders.
However, St Andrews officials have gone out of their way to give LIV players a metaphorical cold shoulder that comes across as rather silly.
First, Norman was the only former champion not invited to the festivities surrounding the 150th tournament, on the grounds that the R&A did not want any distraction from the event. Norman’s exclusion, naturally, had the opposite effect, ensuring a new wave of LIV-centric titles.
Afterwards, LIV was not added to the list of players for the pre-tournament press conference, although their number included the likes of major winners Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson and Louis Oosthuizen. The latter two are former Open champions, and all four are usually allotted media time between Monday and Wednesday.
Then, tee times and pairings for the first two rounds included another glittering slate. In the majors, it’s common for elite — and popular — players to combine to form groups that have significant fan appeal.
With its choices, the R&A seems determined to tame the breaks as much as possible.
Mickelson will play his first two rounds with Lucas Herbert and Kurt Kitayama, both good players, but completely unknown to those who don’t follow golf on a weekly basis. DeChambeau will play Cameron Tringle and 56-year-old John Daly, who is playing on a former champion’s exemption. etc.
No golfer is entitled to expect a premium group, and it shouldn’t make much of a difference anyway, but it was still annoying to see the R&A nitpicking like that.
The divide in golf is real and present. It’s up to players to decide if they want to chase the money and receive feedback as a result. And it’s up to fans to choose whether to wrestle with moral dilemmas and avert their eyes from what has been a pretty entertaining product so far.
While it is entirely the R&A’s right to join in the jabbing of both sides, it is a shame that such a prestigious old organization has chosen to do so in such a frivolous way.
The R&A’s actions, along with threats to change the eligibility criteria for LIV golfers next year, will surely elicit cheers from those who see LIV as a destructive threat to golf’s global structure.
But it’s complicated, because the R&A isn’t pure from the purest in this regard.
The Saudi National Golf Federation, government-backed, is a sign-up member of the R&A. The DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, is closely tied to the R&A – and last year staged the Saudi International as one of its signature events.
“(It) puts the R&A in a bit of a caddyshack,” wrote Andy Bull of the Guardian, arguing that the authority’s heavy-handed intervention could be a ploy that could backfire.
These are strange times for golf, where sooner or later something has to give, a fact made all the more clear as the tournament is being played in one of its most traditional venues.
Uncertainty is gnawing at a game that has been around for so long, and the rumblings of discontent are strong enough that – it seems – even golf’s most storied entities are acting out of character.
Martin Rogers is a Fox Sports columnist and author of the Fox Sports Insider newsletter. YYou can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.
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