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Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson Took Saudi Arabian Money. It’s Dividing Golf Fans

7 minute read

On Monday just past noon a foursome approached the tender dogleg of the first hole during practice for this week’s US Open at the Country Club—sorry; The Country Club—in Brookline, Massachusetts. Each of the quartet had driven well, not that it mattered, and were sorta setting up for approaches. These men had landed in Boston only hours before, so this was a wake-up call—easing into an easy day. Rain had been forecast but the weather was fine, turning sunny and warm. Just above them to the right, tan-oil-applying fans in the Corona Garden bleachers broke from talking about the Celts’ itchy prospects to note some men at play. One asked, “Who’s the big guy in the gray shirt?”

“Dustin Johnson.”

“Huh? Really? He wasn’t announced.”

“No, he’s not on the sheet. That happens sometimes with practice rounds.”

“Ah . . . Does it?”

Johnson swung largely, per style. A couple in the Corona realm clapped their hands lightly. Two guys booed. They bothered to boo. They roused themselves to boo. Someone else noted there were two armed Boston policemen escorting the golfers. Later, elsewhere on the grounds, the cops would hobnob with a beefy guy in an FBI Bomb Tech T-shirt. Take this wherever you will. The golfers made their laconic way into US Open Golf, Genus 2022. The next four hours would be smoother sailing than press conferences. For sure.

With Johnson and a few other big-name golfers—particularly six-time-major winner Phil Mickelson—having recently shunned the PGA Tour for a new Saudi Arabia-backed upstart, LIV Golf, this sporting moment summoned different items in the minds of different fans who were lubed in different ways, all of them observing from the Coronasphere on high. It conjured golf at its best in the large and fluid swing of DJ, it conjured Francis Ouimet and that uplifting movie, thoughts of the loveliness of sport, of glamour and money, of the need for more money, of maltreated pro golfers, of “sportswashing,” of Adolf Hitler, the Berlin and Munich Olympics, Jimmy Carter, Moscow and L.A., Beijing, the missing Chinese tennis player, Brittney Griner, Putin, Sochi, FIFA, Saudi Arabia’s Mohammed bin Salman, President Biden’s sitdown with Saudis, the new Saudi tour, 9/11, $150 million for DJ, even more for Phil?, where is Phil anyway?, placing a bet?, ha ha!, “blood money,” the Tour’s hard line, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, Rory’s win in Canada, who won the LIV event in London anyway?, Tiger’s reaction, the relativity of Greg Norman’s sanity v. senility (murders as “mistakes”; booting sportswriters from press rooms), human rights generally, the institutionalized persecution of women specifically, the dismemberment of a truth-telling American journalist from The Washington Post, Jamal Khashoggi, who in all probability was killed in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul in October, 2018, under orders from bin Salman, who himself is now into golf. If anyone raised the war in Ukraine, gun violence or six-dollar gas, it’s understandable. To be fair: These last issues were not related, or only marginally so, to Monday’s golf. Still and all . . . a good walk spoiled?

Phil was on the grounds. He dropped by to meet the press. He had hit balls at the closed club on Sunday, presumably to avoid creating an Opening Day stir. This time, for once in his Phil Blue Moon, he was circumspect in answering pregnant questions, none of which involved his game. For once Mickelson wasn’t talking about how he knows they’re butchering people and they’re horrible to women and it’s really sad, but he has a true hero’s chance to crush the godforsaken PGA Tour.

The bad guys—Phil, Dustin, a few others—had flown in from London, where they had finished behind nobodies in the inaugural event of the Saudis’ LIV tour, which will come to America for five events later this year, two of which will be held at Donald J. Trump courses, which will stimulate lively multi-pronged protests outside gilded gates. The good guys who’ve pledged loyalty to the PGA Tour —Rory, Justin, others—had arrived from Toronto after contesting mightily in the Canadian Open, a PGA Tour event that Rory had just won for the second year in a row, Justin finishing solo third. The bad guys had just been told, basically, that they would play PGA Tour golf nevermore, unless or until they apostatized. The good guys would remain sorely impoverished but popular with the proletariat (as much as golf has a proletariat). All of this . . . all of this stuff hit the fan during a tumultuous two weeks of play conducted well clear of fairways and greens. The stuff convened on Monday in Brookline, which is not actually but essentially the birthplace of good old fun-loving American golf. So, to reiterate: While surprisingly clement of sky and breeze, this Monday was not a Kumbaya day.

Rory, though, looked fresh and happy as he strolled his practice round alongside World Number Two Jon “I’ll never play LIV” Rahm. These lads had a large crowd following, and everything was less fraught than when DJ had toured. At one point Rory chipped from the rough onto a slanted green and watched the ball gather speed and finish four feet beneath the hole. This being practice, he dropped and tried again. The curve was tighter and that ball stalled two feet from. He swiped a third time and his ball popped-and-rolled 50 feet to target, plop. He needed to remember his landing spot so he chipped a fourth time. Bingo again! He smiled and the crowd laughed and clapped as one, everyone forgetting for an instant such things as dismemberment and the Dow becoming a Bear that very afternoon. Everyone marveled at golf marvelously played by a fun guy having fun playing golf.

It wasn’t the first time there had been communal rapture upon this hallowed ground. Some few in the Monday crowd had been present for the thunderous Ryder Cup comeback of ‘99. And, of course, there was the original and forever win on September 21, 1913.

That was when the Ouimet kid, who lived a mere fade from the links in a small house at 246 Clyde that some fans are hoping to bronze as an artifact, won in a playoff, thereby stoking a sweet Caroline of a party in Beantown, astonishing the sporting globe from Sydney to St. Andrews and assuring that, one day, handsome Shia LaBeouf would portray him in a feature film called The Greatest Game Ever Played. Ouimet had beaten two veteran, Snidely-mustachioed Brits, Vardon and Ray, and it was said that young Francis had fired the shot that sparked America’s first golf revolution—doing so, not incidentally, only a mashie and niblick down the Battle Road from Concord and Lexington, where an earlier geopolitical dustup had occurred some years prior. With Ouimet’s impossible win a new question was being asked about whether Americans—goddam Americans?!—might ably compete on the world stage. Yes, sports fans, crazy as it might sound today, the big new issue was about . . . golf.

Robert Sullivan has written on sports for Time, Sports Illustrated, LIFE and The Economist.

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