Sports

Ahead of U.S. Open, Top Players Take Swings at Rival Circuit

BROOKLINE, Mass. — For six months, Rory McIlroy, now in his 13th year on the PGA Tour and a four-time major champion, has been the most outspoken critic of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit rattling the professional ranks.

On Tuesday, days after LIV Golf held its inaugural tournament outside London, McIlroy’s denigration of the rival league grew louder, and he found an ally in Jon Rahm, the defending champion at this week’s U.S. Open at the Country Club outside Boston. Referring to his victory at the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open last week and comparing it with LIV Golf’s event, McIlroy said: “Last week in Canada, LIV will never have that. Last week meant something. What they were doing over there meant nothing.”

McIlroy has long stressed that the LIV Golf series, whose major shareholder is the Public Investment Fund, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia and which pays golfers hefty appearance fees with guarantees that everyone in the field will be awarded a substantial payout, is more of an exhibition than a competition. At the midpoint of nearly every PGA Tour event, for example, half the golfers in the field — those with the highest scores — are eliminated from the tournament and sent away without any monetary award.

That led Rahm on Tuesday to describe LIV Golf’s first event as “not a golf tournament,” because it lacks cuts.

He added: “I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for a hundred years. That’s what I want to see. Yeah, money is great, but I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world.”

McIlroy was unsparing on the same topic, especially when discussing the few younger players, such as Bryson DeChambeau, 28, who have chosen LIV Golf over the PGA Tour. Most of the big names committed to LIV are considerably older and have been lured by upfront contracts valued at $150 million or more. Phil Mickelson, 51, reportedly received close to $200 million to sign on.

McIlroy, left, practicing with Jon Rahm, the reigning champion at the U.S. Open. Rahm on Tuesday described LIV Golf’s first event as “not a golf tournament,” because it lacked cuts.Credit…Amanda Sabga/EPA, via Shutterstock

“I understand, because a lot of these guys are in their late 40s, or in Phil’s case, early 50s,” McIlroy, a 33-year-old from Northern Ireland, said. “Yeah, I think everyone in this room, and they would say to you themselves, that their best days are behind them.

“That’s why I don’t understand it for the guys that are a similar age to me going over there because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me. And I think theirs are, too. So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out.”

Asked why he has been so impassioned in his allegiance to the PGA Tour, McIlroy answered: “I just think it’s the right thing to do.”

He then mentioned the hundreds of millions of dollars that PGA Tour events have raised for myriad charities and added: “That is a massive legacy and something that I don’t think people talk enough about.”

It is also true that McIlroy’s assessment of the LIV Golf series has been mistaken in the past. In February, he called the venture “dead in the water.” When asked about that misjudgment on Tuesday, even McIlroy’s response was meant to be something of a punch in the nose to those who turned away from the PGA Tour.

“I guess I took a lot of players’ statements at face value,” he said. “I guess that’s what I got wrong. You had people committed to the PGA Tour — that’s the statements that were put out. People that went back on that. I took them at their word, and I was wrong.”

Because the United States Golf Association said it would not bar eligible players, Phil Mickelson can play at the U.S. Open despite defecting to LIV Golf.Credit…Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

Finally, McIlroy was asked if he had lost respect for Mickelson, the most renowned player to defect. His response was telling for how it began.

A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series


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A new series. The new Saudi-financed, controversy-trailed LIV Golf series held its first event in June. But what is it? Who is playing it? What’s all the hubbub, and how can you watch it? Here’s what to know:

What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.

Who is playing it? The 48 players in the initial LIV Golf event were not exactly a who’s who of golf, and many of the biggest names in the sport, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away. But there were big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García.

What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.

How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. On June 9, it suspended the 17 PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players.

How can I watch the new tour? Despite its high-profile golfers and its big-money backing, LIV Golf has not yet secured a broadcast rights agreement in the United States and will be shown on lesser-watched streaming services in much of the world. In the United States, this week’s tournament will be available via live streams on LIVGolf.com, YouTube and Facebook.

“As a golfer? No,” McIlroy said.

He continued: “As a golfer, I have the utmost respect for Phil. I’ve been disappointed with how he has went about what he has done.”

About 90 minutes after McIlroy addressed reporters, Brooks Koepka, who relishes his role as a contrarian, had a different opinion about the PGA Tour-LIV Golf rift.

“I’m trying to focus on the U.S. Open, man,” Koepka said with a grimace. “I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversations. I’m tired of all this stuff.”

Koepka complained that news-media coverage was “throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open.”

“The more legs you give it,” Koepka said, “the more you keep talking about it.”

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