ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – The golf took center stage Thursday along the Edan Estuary, but even the 150th playing of the game’s oldest championship and the storied Old Course have limitations.
The Camerons were brilliant. Young went round the ancient links in 64 strokes. Smith was three shots back in third place, a stroke behind Rory McIlroy. Yes, Rory McIlroy is back in contention at St. Andrews.
The year’s final major on firm and fiery turf can change any narrative and warm any heart, but it can’t change reality. Professional golf can attempt to plug fingers in ears to make the noise go away, but the commotion remains. It was there on the oversized yellow leaderboards, just high enough to mock those who had hoped for a reprieve from LIV Golf and the professional game’s summer of discontent.
Ian Poulter was first to the trough, powering through an opening tee shot that almost found traveled out of bounds along the sprawling first/18th fairways. The Englishman eagled the ninth hole on his way to a 3-under 69 and a particularly heated scrum with reporters.
More than his 162-foot putt on No. 9 or an impressively grinding finish, the media wanted to hear Poulter’s thoughts on all things LIV Golf. The PGA Tour-winner-turned-LIV-member hadn’t been invited to the media center for an interview and there were questions. In fact, none of the LIV players in the field were invited in for pre-championship press conferences. It’s a sign of the times.
The R&A wanted to keep this week about The Open. It’s why Greg Norman, the CEO of LIV Golf, was not invited to the celebration, even though he’s a two-time winner of the claret jug. Fellow Open champion Phil Mickelson said he was also told “it wasn’t a great idea” if he attended the same celebrations, given his association with the breakaway league.
“We decided that we didn't want the distraction. We wanted to ensure that the conversation was all about this week and playing golf,” R&A CEO Martin Slumbers said earlier this week.
And yet there were distractions dotted across the leaderboard. Impossible to ignore.
Poulter was booed on the first tee early Thursday, but he said, otherwise, the round was thoroughly enjoyable, which gets to the quiet part out loud. For Poulter and the other LIV’ers, the future is wildly uncertain and this start, more so than any of their career, must be savored.
“I'm here to play golf. This could probably be my last Open Championship at St. Andrews,” Poulter said. “I'm trying to enjoy it despite the questioning. I'm staying out of the way. I'm not reading social media. I just want to play golf, right? I can only do my job. If I listen to a lot of nonsense, then I'm going to get distracted.”
The noise got to Poulter last week at the Scottish Open, which he was allowed to play only after an English court granted him a stay. The PGA Tour suspended Poulter and the other LIV players indefinitely for defying tournament regulations and the DP World Tour barred their members who jumped to LIV from playing the Scottish Open, which was co-sanctioned by both tours. The court’s stay only turned up the volume on an already heated conversation.
“I was deeply disappointed with how I handled myself last week from a perspective of losing focus out on the golf course more than anything else,” said Poulter, who missed the cut at the Scottish Open with rounds of 78-72. “I don't play golf very well distracted.”
By comparison, The Open must feel Zen-like for the likes of Poulter and Lee Westwood. The distractions are still there, looming large over a game that’s starting to feel like it’s at a crossroads, but St. Andrews demands full attention and a degree of reverence that other venues do not.
“I try and make the most of every experience I have,” said Westwood, who was one shot better than Poulter, following a 68. “Every major championship I play in, you never know what's around the corner.”
Wishful thinking can only go so far. Slumbers’ comments this week suggest the R&A is squarely on the PGA Tour side of the rift. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” he said.
Asked about Slumbers’ comments, both Westwood and Poulter declined to join the fray. Even Tiger Woods’ take on the LIV divide – as strong a rebuke of those who signed on to the Saudi-backed circuit as any – didn’t seem to carry much weight.
“Some of these players may not ever get a chance to play in major championships … never get a chance to experience this right here, walk down the fairways at Augusta National. That, to me, I just don't understand it,” Woods said of the LIV players.
With the lines so clearly drawn, and reconciliation so far away, there’s a polite standoff now settling into the game. Poulter said his reception from his competitive counterparts this week has been amicable and that he can respect a “difference of opinion.”
Westwood, however, appears to have moved beyond niceties. When asked his thoughts on Woods’ comments, he offered only, “He’s welcome to his opinion.” Then asked if he respected Woods’ thoughts on the issue, Westwood replied, “I respect his game.”
Golf won on Thursday at St. Andrews, thanks in equal parts to the play of Young, Smith and McIlroy, but the distractions loom. With five of the game’s excommunicated clustered within the top 11 – Westwood, Poulter, Dustin Johnson, Talor Gooch and Bryson DeChambeau – it’s impossible to ignore the noise or the prospect that the Champion Golfer of the Year ceremony might come with a side of discomfort.