ST. ANDREWS – Golf’s breakaway bunch have turned, it seems, into a band of brothers.
The rebels who have created a major rift in the world of golf by defecting to the Saudi-funded LIV series are working together for a common cause at the British Open this week.
“Everybody, it feels like, is against us,” said Talor Gooch, one of the 24 LIV golfers playing at St. Andrews. “And that’s OK. It’s kind of banded us together, I think.”
That 24 has been whittled down to an 11-strong group who will play the weekend at the home of golf.
Five were sitting in the top 20 after the second round Friday. Two were in the top 10. One, possibly the biggest fish in LIV’s pool in Dustin Johnson, is in fifth place and four shots off the lead.
There remains a distinct possibility — much to the chagrin of the R&A, no doubt — that a player from the LIV tour could be lifting the claret jug on Sunday evening.
The prospect was put to Martin Slumbers, the R&A chief executive, on the eve of the event and he said he would “welcome them onto the 18th green.” Yet minutes earlier, Slumbers had delivered a withering verdict on the breakaway tour, describing it as a money grab that threatens golf’s merit-based culture cultivated over centuries.
Such has been the R&A’s desire to stop the LIV saga from disrupting the 150th British Open that the tour’s CEO, Greg Norman, was told to not attend the pre-tournament dinner at St. Andrews for past champions. Norman is a two-winner winner. Phil Mickelson, the 2013 champion and now a LIV player, also didn’t attend the dinner, saying the R&A told him the club didn’t think it was a good idea he went.
LIV players weren’t put up for official pre-tournament media duties, either.
But the story is casting something of a shadow over the event. There have been noticeable jeers for Ian Poulter, another of the defectors, as he hit his opening tee shots in both of his rounds — even if he claimed to not have heard them. Random barbs have been heard from the galleries about the enormous sums of money taken by players to leave both the PGA Tour and the European tour.
Johnson said he has been able to put any negativity and criticism to one side.
“I don’t read. I don’t look at it,” the former No. 1 said. “It doesn’t bother me because, obviously, everyone has their own opinion and I have mine, and the only one I care about is mine.”
Another LIV player, Lee Westwood, chose to blame the media for “stoking up" the matter, which has shone a light on Saudi Arabia's attempts to improve its image through sportswashing.
“I think the general public just want to go out there and see good golf,” Westwood said, “no matter where it’s being played or who’s playing it.”
Johnson, who shot 5-under 67 to move to 9 under for the week, is contending at a major for the first time this year.
Gooch is the other LIV player in the top 10 — he is tied for eighth at 7 under — as he looks to improve on his best finish in seven previous appearances at a major, a tie for 14th at the Masters in April.
Also in the top 20 was Sadom Kaewkanjana, who was tied for 12th at 6 under, and both Westwood and Abraham Ancer, a further stroke back in a tie for 18th.
The fact that a quarter of the top 20 are LIV players might be used by the rebel series to push its status as a tour of some repute, as opposed to a rich man's playground for the unmotivated or those past their best.
“The credentials of everyone speaks for themselves,” Gooch said. “It’s obviously cool for me to see other guys that are out there playing well.
“We’ve caught a lot of flak for what we’ve done here recently. I think one thing that cannot be questioned is the quality of players that are there.”
Among the other LIV players making the weekend were Sergio Garcia, Poulter and Reed, who is wearing a LIV-branded cap this week.
Mickelson was the most high-profile LIV player to miss the cut after shooting 77 to finish at 5 over for the week.
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