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Year in Review

The 150th Open at St. Andrews packed a year’s worth of golf chaos into one week

December 16, 2022

It was a block away from the Royal & Ancient clubhouse, sitting across Ziggy’s restaurant and nestled in one of those gray stone buildings that come to mind when thinking of St. Andrews. That, at least, was where the principals with LIV Golf were rumored to have set up operations during Open week in July. Professional golf is a small, gossipy ecosystem, one that gets particularly intimate when congregated in a town of 18,000, so whatever secrecy LIV had for its temporary HQ was gone well before the first shots were struck at the Old Course. Then again, as the year proved over and over and over, LIV’s modus operandi was to make as much noise, as much disruption, as possible, so its brain trust was likely fine with word of their presence at the Home of Golf … especially since so many wanted to keep them out.

The 150th playing of the Open Championship had the chance to be a respite from the schism incited by the controversial Saudi-backed circuit, a fracture that was fraught with existential questions about what it meant for the game and where it would ultimately go. The week in Scotland would be a celebration of the championship, yes, but also of the sport overall, the Open’s anniversary proof that golf has endured worse while reminding all that is good with this beautifully dumb game can continue in the face of the unknown. In a sense, that hope proved true; perhaps no place like St. Andrews can make the past feel quite so magically present while new moments seem nostalgic even as they are happening. The Old Course never gets old because good things never do.

But as with everything else in the game in 2022, the Open at the Old Course was not immune from the tensions that encompassed professional golf. If anything, just as LIV Golf and its consequences were the story of the 2022 golf season—earning the top spot in our Newsmakers of the Year—the Open at St. Andrews was the perfect microcosm of its frenetic reach.

It began before the tournament started with the words of Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A. His American counterparts at the USGA and PGA of America did their best to sidestep thorny LIV-related questions at their majors with vagueness and ambiguity. Slumbers left no doubt where he and his organization stood on the matter with his remarks. “There is no such thing as a free lunch. I believe the model we have seen at Centurion and at Pumpkin Ridge is not in the best long-term interest of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money,” Slumbers said. “We believe it undermines the merit-based nature and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special.”

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Martin Slumbers didn't mince words regarding the R&A's view of LIV Golf at a press conference on the eve of the opening round of the 150th Open.

Oisin Keniry/R&A

Those may just be chalked up as words, yet they were supported by unspoken actions. No LIV players were on the pre-tournament press conference schedule, none received a marquee pairing and most found themselves in groupings with competitors who didn’t necessarily match their stature (such as Bryson DeChambeau’s tee time with John Daly and Cameron Tringale). As the championship progressed, LIV players were mostly kept off the broadcasts. The R&A could not keep them out of its field; it is an “open,” after all. Yet the implication was clear: You may be here, but begrudgingly so.

One person who wasn’t there at all was Greg Norman. The LIV Golf CEO and two-time winner of the claret jug was disinvited from the Open’s champions dinner and four-hole Celebration of Champions exhibition. Norman, 67, had previously asked for an exemption into the field despite not playing in the event since 2009 and seemingly unaware past champions are no longer invited to play after 60. For years Norman has wanted to fight the establishment’s grip on the sport, and he’s gotten his wish, but the price for igniting golf’s Cold War was being frozen out of St. Andrews.

Slumbers was not alone in his LIV criticism. “​​What these players are doing for guaranteed money, what is the incentive to practice?” Tiger Woods asked on Tuesday. “What is the incentive to go out there and earn it in the dirt?” Time would later reveal Woods’ efforts in combating LIV Golf, working behind the scenes to spur wholesale, systematic changes to the PGA Tour to incentivize players from defecting. That’s important, because in that prism it’s easy to brush off Woods’ words as support for a structure that remains financially beneficial to him. But when Woods speaks of LIV, he speaks as a competitor, and LIV Golf’s format offends one of the game’s greatest competitors to his core.

There were rumors about what players would be the next to bounce. The whisper that was loudest involved Henrik Stenson. After accepting the Ryder Cup captainship earlier in the year, Stenson had asserted multiple times that meant he would not be joining any renegade tours. Now it seemed Stenson would preparing to break his word, which he ultimately did, days later.

Any hope that LIV chatter would quiet once the competition began was quickly abandoned. Ian Poulter, one of the first LIV signees, was among the early wave of players on Thursday, going off in the fourth group. An Englishman normally beloved in this part of the world, Poulter received a scattering of boos on the first hole, which may or may not have led to one of the worst tee shots of the week, a duck-hook so bad it nearly went OB on the biggest fairway in golf. Afterwards, Poulter insisted he didn’t hear the catcalls. “I actually thought I had a great reception on the first tee, to be honest,” Poulter said. When pressed, Poulter said he heard nothing negative. “You lot can write whatever you like about being heckled and booing.” To be fair, the entire grandstands did not jeer; conversely, against the backdrop of silence, a few heckles—and there were heckles—can pierce the air. Poulter is an easy and deserving target, yet the episode was tinged with sadness, a once-adored Ryder Cup star struggling with his new reality.

Let history show Phil Mickelson was not booed. His punishment was more severe. When he returned from his suspension, er, “sabbatical” at the U.S. Open, Mickelson was mostly greeted with cheers. That was America and this was Scotland, where fans are more in tune with the havoc Mickelson has wrought on the sport and only give forgiveness when it has been requested. The man who thrives on an undercurrent of attention was met with aggressive indifference. Good shots were still acknowledged, but the mark of Mickelson has always been his penchant to entertain his zealous following. Without that closeness and connection, Mickelson floated like a ghost, knowing he was no longer of this world yet equally unable to leave it. A 72-77 led to a quick exit, the scoreboard the only indication he was there at all.

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Phil Mickelson's week at St. Andrews ended early when he missed the cut.

Richard Heathcote/R&A

Dustin Johnson, the first household name to sign with LIV Golf, was near the lead after 36 holes. While Johnson has never been especially beloved by galleries—at least to the extent enjoyed by the Tigers and Rorys and Spieths—fans generally pulled for him. At St. Andrews it was more muted, positive responses retreating upon the realization, “Oh, right. LIV.” When asked how he blocks out the noise, DJ replied that Friday, “Honestly, I don't read anything. So I wouldn't know what you were saying or if there was anything negative being 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.”

That answer proved to be slightly more diplomatic than the one Sergio Garcia delivered. When asked Friday if the unfriendly vibes made the LIV guys come closer together, the Spaniard replied, “I don't care what they say. I don't even read. I don't know how to read anymore.” Two days later, when asked if he enjoyed the week, Garcia said, “Not very much.”

Hostile as the environment may have been, several LIV players performed well. That group included DeChambeau, who shot 67 and 66 to finish T-8. His weekend was highlighted by an eventful Saturday in which he was seven under through 15 holes, four-putted the 16th for a double, hit a drive so left at the 17th he reloaded (only to get TIO relief with his first shot), then found the road and still managed to save par. Give him this, he is never not entertaining … except those feats mostly went unnoticed. For two years DeChambeau was a paradigm shifter; now the player who had mattered so much suddenly seemed to matter not at all.

Not all LIV members had success. Brooks Koepka, who had been a tour de force at majors over the previous five years, missed the cut. In the season’s four majors, he finished no better than 55th. Koepka, you may remember, previously said LIV Golf would remain a threat after many tried to bury it following Mickelson’s now-infamous comments. “They'll get their guys,” Koepka said in February. “Somebody will sell out and go to it." When he looked lost at the Open it was fair to wonder if we were watching someone at odds with himself, resigned to the fact the 32-year-old had become the very person he swore he’d never be.

Truth be told, not everything during the week was marked by LIV strife. There was Tiger’s possible goodbye, a hot-mic moment between Justin Thomas and Shane Lowry, a reporter asking Cam Young about his experience on the mean streets of the Bronx. Matt Fitzpatrick ripped the Old Course, and Jordan Spieth had the darndest time with an ice-cream cone. But there was a cohesiveness to these seven days and four competitive rounds, and what held this tournament together was the very thing attempting to tear the game in two.

It’s a sentiment encapsulated by the two players who ultimately defined the 150th Open. Cam Smith turned in one of the best final rounds in Open history, his closing 64—punctuated by putting through the Road Hole bunker’s edge and cleaning up the remaining eight feet with an ease normal humans are not supposed to possess at such a moment—earning him the claret jug. Weirdly, that performance became secondary to Smith’s remark in his winner’s press conference when asked about his prospects of joining LIV Golf. “I just won the British Open, and you’re asking about that. I think that’s pretty not that good,” Smith said in response, a remark so awkward that he was pressed again about LIV. “I don’t know, mate,” Smith replied. “My team around me worries about all that stuff. I’m here to win golf tournaments.” Allegedly, Smith—excuse us, Smith’s team—had given a verbal commitment to LIV Golf, with Smith officially signing weeks later.

And then there was Rory McIlroy. The Ulsterman had called this Open his Holy Grail. The quest resonated in a way that explains much of the love he engenders. For nearly a decade, McIlroy has been on a crusade, trying to hurdle the pressures of who he once was against the hope of what he could still be again. But McIlroy was also one of LIV’s most outspoken critics, and it’s not hard to see the symmetry of McIlroy’s righteous war for what he believes is right and the parallels with the edict from Bobby Jones, who stated a golfer’s career is not complete unless he has won at St Andrews.

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Rory McIlroy was the center of attention on the course even as he'd eventually fall two shots short of claiming the claret jug.

Ross Kinnaird

We are not breaking any news to report that McIlroy’s total of four career majors remains the same, as he fell short on that Open Sunday. But what McIlroy did that week can not be stated in results. Already one of the sport’s most popular figures, the rapport between McIlroy and fans that week was strengthened. He not just entertained but galvanized those that followed and they in turn returned the favor. At least part of that love was spurred by what McIlroy has stood for, and against, this season. In the void of true leadership, McIlroy was willing to speak up because the cost of silence was too great. That didn’t earn him the claret jug, but in the eyes of many that week at St. Andrews, it made him a champion.

McIlroy’s battle, and the battle for the soul of professional golf, will continue. The tournament has been long over, the 150th Open now a part of the past. For what it’s worth, on that Sunday evening, as the gloaming swallowed St. Andrews, the streets were mostly dark. But a walk past LIV Golf’s temporary hideout, in one of those old gray buildings, showed the lights were still on.