Golf must calm the professional waters and bring an end to its civil war

Show caption Bernd Wiesberger, Lee Westwood and Justin Harding during day one of the first LIV Golf Invitational tournament at the Centurion Club. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian Sportblog Golf must calm the professional waters and bring an end to its civil war Ewan Murray The sport’s arbiters, the R&A and USGA, must find a solution so the Saudi-backed LIV Series can coexist with established tours @mrewanmurray Sun 12 Jun 2022 08.00 BST Share on Facebook

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The return this week of the US Open to the Country Club in Brookline for the first time since 1988 would ordinarily be a cause for reflection. The 1999 Ryder Cup there was laced with controversy after a ferocious European reaction to premature US celebrations.

There will be only passing reference to Curtis Strange’s playoff success over Nick Faldo. Sam Torrance and his famous broadside – “Tom Lehman calls himself a man of God. That was not the behaviour of a man of God” – likewise. Even the course setup presided over by the United States Golf Association, an annual debating point, feels irrelevant. Civil war dominates golf; it will dominate the US Open. It will dominate next month’s Open at St Andrews despite the R&A’s screams about the significance of a 150th anniversary celebration.

If there was any doubt about the polarised positions created by the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Series, recent days shattered that illusion. No sooner were shots hit at the Centurion Club than shots were fired from the PGA Tour’s Florida headquarters. The banning of 17 players is what the PGA Tour will regard as a proportionate reaction to dalliances with the Saudis, but it also emphasised the determination with which the sport’s ecosystem will attempt to defend itself.

Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour’s commissioner, will sleep more soundly with the backing of Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Tiger Woods et al, but it is worth noting Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau pledged their allegiance to Ponte Vedra not so long ago.

Those featuring in the LIV Series in Hertfordshire have been subjected to a level of attention and abuse that is totally alien to golfers. As the cost of living crisis takes hold, here are already well-paid sportsmen collecting ridiculous sums of money from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund while giving the impression of shrugging their shoulders at the subsequent consternation.

It is an awful look, depicting gross misjudgment and bad advice. Making the point that many of these guys are decent people – and they are – results in a tidal wave of compelling counterpoints. Reputations have been trashed.

These golfers will encounter a problem if the sport’s world ranking organisation continues to refuse to recognise LIV tournaments. Ranking points can be key to major championship qualification. The breakaway tour, featuring 48-man events, seems to fall short on the basis fields must average 75 or more competitors over the course of a season and have done so for at least a year as per rankings criteria. LIV’s alliance with the Asian Tour offers scope for players to earn points on their events but it would look faintly ridiculous if Johnson, DeChambeau and chums have to prop up their status via the Taiwan Masters or Korea Open.

Greg Norman greets Dustin Johnson during day one of the first LIV Golf Invitational. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

The position of the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) is fascinating. On face value there could be mutual benefit to inviting the renegades of the PGA Tour to feature in its tournaments. Graeme McDowell has already called on DP World to do precisely that. The strategic alliance between the main tours in Europe and the US would, however, surely rule out such a prospect.

Keith Pelley, the DP World Tour’s chief executive, is still to break his silence on this most complex of affairs but privately he must be debating the cost of survival. Pelley turned down a hugely lucrative partnership deal from the Saudis; the right call on moral terms but one that has triggered a commercial problem. Decent DP World Tour players will throw envious glances as Oliver Fisher, the world No 1,034, participates in a $25m event at the Centurion.

There will be collateral damage to the Ryder Cup if McDowell, Ian Poulter, Johnson, DeChambeau and others are removed from the equation because of LIV agreements. Aside from the rights and wrongs of that situation, it is an obvious truth. Professional golf is not going to receive any extra attention if the public at large are confused by where golfers will compete.

With top-level golf on their stage this week, the USGA has a platform. Next month, the R&A will be in an identical position. Both are rightly proud of majors that have grown beyond all recognition. Both are worthy of praise for their commitment to the grassroots and women’s golf. Under Martin Slumbers, the R&A’s modernisation has been especially striking.

Yet as the ultimate arbiters of their sport – both the R&A and USGA are keen to present themselves as such – these bodies must now stride forward to calm the waters. They owe it to golf to do so, as opposed to sitting back as chaos unfolds.

All the distance-measuring reports and rules modifications in the world are frankly irrelevant when open warfare is breaking out at a level that captures so much attention. On the basis LIV will not go away any time soon, a solution must be found whereby it coexists with the PGA Tour. The USGA and R&A should facilitate and lead such a discussion. If not, they will find themselves caught in the crossfire on account of a dereliction of duty.