U.S. Open Hosts Saudi-Backed Players Like Phil Mickelson

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; It Country Club—in Brookline, Massachusetts. They were all well-prepared for the approaching approach. These men had landed in Boston only hours before, so this was a wake-up call—easing into an easy day. While rain had been predicted, it was not expected. The weather turned fine and sunny. 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. One couple from Corona raised their arms lightly. Two men booed. Two men did boo. They were able to get up and boo. One other person noted that two Boston policemen were escorting them. The cops later hung out with an older man in an area of the golf course. FBI Bomb Tech T-shirt. This T-shirt can be taken wherever you go. Golfers made their way to US Open Golf Genus 2022. These four hours were smoother than any press conference. 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, Phil even has more to offer, which is where What is Phil doing anyway, placing a stake? “blood money,” the Tour’s hard line, Rory McIlroy and Justin Thomas, Rory’s win in Canada, Who was the winner of LIV in London?, 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 PostJamal Khashoggi is a suspect in Jamal Khashoggi’s death at Istanbul’s Saudi embassy, in October 2018. This was under bin Salman’s orders. Bin Salman himself has a passion for 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, all the same. . . How can you spoil a great walk?

Phil This wasSurroundings. He stopped by to speak with the media. On Sunday, he hit the balls at the closed club to keep it quiet and avoid any Opening Day drama. He was careful in answering any pregnant questions but none that involved his game this time. 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 just had to be told they would never play PGA Tour Golf again, unless and until they repudiated. While the good guys will remain poor, they’ll be popular among the proletariat as much golf has a prosetariat. All this. . . All of it stuffThe fan was struck during two hectic weeks of playing that left no time for fairways or greens. Brookline was the home of fun-loving American golf, and Monday saw all that happen. Recall that, despite the pleasant breeze and sky, Monday wasn’t 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. This group of lads was surrounded by a lot more people than DJ, so it wasn’t as stressful. Rory chipped one time from the rough to the green on a slanted fairway and saw the ball speed up and reach four feet under the hole. He dropped the ball and tried again. It was more tight and the ball stuck two feet in front of him. After grabbing the ball again, he rolled it 50 feet towards his target. Plop. So he needed to recall his landing place so he played a fourth round. Bingo again! His smile was infectious and everyone laughed. Everybody marveled at the brilliant game of golf played by a man who had fun.

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. The original, and forever win, was on September 21, 1913.

This was the moment when the Ouimet child, who had lived just a fade from the links at a tiny house at 246 Clyde, that some fans hope to bronze as an artworkifact, won in the playoff. It stoked a sweet Caroline party in Beantown. The sporting world from Sydney to St. Andrews was stunned and the handsome Shia LaBeouf promised to portray him in a feature movie called This is the Greatest Ever Game. 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?!—They might be able compete on a global level. Sports fans are crazy, but the new big issue is about . . golf.

Robert Sullivan is a sports writer for Time, Sports Illustrated and LIFE.

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