Phil Mickelson, LIV golfer winning US Open disastrous for PGA Tour

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BROOKLINE, Mass. — In an ideal world, Phil Mickelson winning the U.S. Open three days after his 52nd birthday would stand among the greatest stories in sports history. Consider the circumstances:

Mickelson has never finished first at the U.S. Open. He is among the most popular golfers ever and, despite Tiger Woods’ dominance, he has won six major championships, 45 PGA Tour events and widespread affection from galleries thoroughly entertained by his daring tee-to-green artistry and his eagerness to engage them with eye contact, a head nod, a thumbs-up and an autograph.

Yes, Lefty completing the career Grand Slam would deliver a ratings bonanza for NBC, one that wouldn’t be expected with the recovering Woods absent from the field at The Country Club.

But we are a million miles removed from an ideal world in the game of golf. Mickelson and other name players have signed nine-figure deals with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit, inspiring PGA Tour suspensions, condemnations from human-rights advocates and families of 9/11 victims, and turning the sport upside down. Outside of the Ryder Cup, golf has never been defined by such an us-versus-them mentality.

And the “them” includes Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, major champions from the U.S. who decided the public backlash and the suspensions are prices worth paying for guaranteed generational wealth that will set up their great grandchildren.

U.S. Open
Bryson DeChambeau
USA TODAY Sports

If one of those guys is lifting the U.S. Open trophy to the greater Boston sky Sunday evening, the visual will represent an unmitigated disaster for the PGA Tour.

Up front, understand that the LIV defectors needed to hear those voices vehemently opposed to their lucrative partnerships with a country that deals in the currency of persecution and that produced 15 of the 19 hijackers that perpetrated an unfathomable mass murder on U.S. soil on 9/11. Ardent PGA Tour supporter Rory McIlroy put it this way: “My dad said to me a long time ago, once you make your bed, you lie in it. And they’ve made their bed.”

A very uncomfortable bed. Mickelson looked and sounded haunted during his pre-tournament press conference the other day, as if he wished he’d never peddled away his competitive soul. Lefty will live with this choice for the rest of his career.

So be it. But over time, after fresh issues and crises control the news cycle, and after President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia provides the LIV golfers some cover, the tough questions and the criticism will taper off. “As much as it’s being used as a stick to beat those guys and it’s a big issue for anyone who is going [to LIV],” Ireland’s Padraig Harrington said during last month’s PGA Championship, “clearly time will pass.”

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And time is on the LIV circuit’s side. The people running the upstart league don’t care about making money. They care only about trying to humanize and normalize their regime through their associations with prominent sports leagues and famous athletes, and they are willing to spend billions to make it happen.

That’s why the PGA Tour is terrified of this threat. When you are competing against a business that isn’t in the business of making money, and has a bottomless reserve of cash to fund its agenda, you should be afraid. Very, very afraid.

U.S. Open
Phil Mickelson
Getty Images

Here’s another reason for tour commissioner Jay Monahan to toss and turn through the night: His organization doesn’t control the four most important (by far) tournaments in golf. Though the PGA Tour will lobby its friends at the Masters (run by Augusta National), the PGA Championship (run by the PGA of America), the U.S. Open (run by the USGA), and the British Open (run by the Royal & Ancient), those governing bodies want the world’s best players in their tournaments. They also want their top officials to stay out of as many courtrooms as possible.

This week, the USGA set a precedent for the majors by allowing the qualified LIV defectors to compete for the national championship. Those golfers would have won an injunction to play within a half-hour, and USGA elders knew it. Though USGA CEO Mike Whan did say Wednesday that he can “definitely foresee that day” when the rules make it harder for LIV golfers to qualify for the Open, he talked enough about unifying the game and showcasing the best players to suggest he’s not in the mood to ban anyone any time soon.

Pressed on whether the LIV boys should have been bounced from Brookline for partnering with the Saudis, Whan brought up the number of people who tried to qualify for the U.S. Open, and their possible business ties of the past.

US Open
Dustin Johnson
EPA

“If you’re going to put that kind of clause in, who gets in,” he said, “we’ve got to go back to 9,300 people. … It becomes a pretty slippery slope to apply that across 9,300 people.”

Yes it does. PGA Tour officials and players mocked LIV’s first event near London over its turnout and lack of network TV exposure and lack of drama in comparison to McIlroy’s victory over Justin Thomas at the Canadian Open. But the tournament was indeed played to completion and a $4 million check was indeed awarded to a winner, Charl Schwartzel (who earned another $750,000 for his team winning, too). It was a start.

Mickelson or Johnson or DeChambeau winning the U.S. Open on Sunday? That wouldn’t be merely a start.

That would be a staggering credibility coup for LIV Golf, and a public-relations nightmare for the PGA Tour.



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