By Martin Rogers
FOX Sports Columnist
There is so much to love about golf’s Open Championship, otherwise known as the British Open (to Americans only and to the disapproval of the Brits).
The charm of an event that has now been played for 150 years is enhanced manifold when the rotational schedule turns around, like this year, to the Old Course at St. Andrews, the custodial home of the game that is steeped in majestic 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, a homage to the number of shots he took to win the Open in 2000.
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Bunkers, a staple of any course, originated here. And if not for those craters created by local sheep huddling to shelter from the howling gales of Scotland’s East coast, they may have never become part of golf’s fabric.
St. Andrews is a sporting pilgrimage site. Golf has been played for so long there that historical figures took thwacks around the weathered links — even trailblazing monarch Mary Queen of Scots was partial to the course.
It is where disciples of the game go in droves, and not just at tournament time. Those who’ve played there say it is golf like nowhere else, as if a magical spell has been cast upon the old game.
It is the sort of place that should, frankly, be immune to petty squabbles. Unfortunately, as play at the Open began on Thursday, that hasn’t been the case.
The angst revolves around the presence of the group of golfers from the breakaway LIV Tour, of course. It is “of course” because no golf story is complete without talk of LIV these days. Such has been the ruckus 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 golf’s establishment at every step, and some of his comments, especially in defense of his employers, have resoundingly missed the mark. However, this week at least, it is not the upstart league but the hallowed organization of the Royal and Ancient (R&A) — which oversees St Andrews and is also one of golf’s governing bodies — that is acting in a way that doesn’t befit its status.
For the championships, the R&A did not implement any restrictions banning the LIV players — there are 23 of them here — despite bans being handed down to the defectors by the furious leaders of the PGA Tour.
However, St. Andrews officials have gone out of their way to give the LIV players a metaphorical cold shoulder in ways that come across as rather silly.
Firstly, Norman was the only former champion not invited to the festivities surrounding the 150th tournament, on the basis that the R&A did not want any distractions from the event. Norman’s exclusion, naturally, had the opposite effect, ensuring a fresh wave of headlines centered around LIV.
Next, none of the LIV players were added to the list for pre-tournament press conferences, despite their number featuring 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 would usually be allocated media time between Monday and Wednesday.
Then, the tee times and pairings for the opening two rounds included another batch of glaring slights. At the Majors, it is typical for elite — and popular — players to be placed together to create groups that have significant fan appeal.
With its choices, the R&A appears to have been determined to humble the breakaways as much as possible.
Mickelson will play his first two rounds with Lucas Herbert and Kurt Kitayama, fine players both, but also complete unknowns to those who don’t follow golf on a weekly basis. DeChambeau will play with Cameron Tringale and 56-year-old John Daly, who is playing on a former champion’s exemption. And so on.
No golfer is entitled to expect a premium group, and it shouldn’t make much difference anyway, but it was still jarring to see the R&A stoop to nitpicking in such a manner.
Golf’s divide is real and present. It is for the players to decide if they want to chase the money and accept the resulting backlash. And it is up to the fans to battle the moral dilemma and choose whether to 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 from both sides, it is also a shame that such a prestigious old organization chose to do so in such a trivial way.
The R&A’s actions, combined with their threat to change the qualification criteria to make it more difficult for LIV golfers next year, will surely elicit cheers from those who consider LIV to be a devastating threat to golf’s global structure.
But it is complicated, for the R&A is not purer than pure on this topic.
The Saudi national golf federation, government-backed, is a signed-up member of the R&A. The DP World Tour, formerly the European Tour, is closely tied with the R&A — and staged the Saudi International as one of its signature events last year.
“(It) makes the R&A come across a little bit Caddyshack,” wrote the Guardian’s Andy Bull, arguing that the heavy-handedness of the authorities may be a ploy that backfires.
These are strange times for golf, where something has to give sooner or later, a fact made even clearer because the tournament is being played at the most traditional venue of all.
The uncertainty is jarring for a game that has been around so long, and the rumblings of discontent are strong enough — it seems — that even golf’s most storied entities are acting out of character.
Martin Rogers is a columnist for FOX Sports and the author of the FOX Sports Insider newsletter. You can subscribe to the daily newsletter here.