No one in attendance at the Home of Golf on a glorious Saturday before the start of the 150th Open would have guessed that this was a sport embroiled in a brutal civil war.
Not more than ten feet from the first tee, where all the action begins at 6:30 a.m. Thursday, a couple and their young son happily enjoyed a picnic. The boy was enthralled by an owl brought from a local bird of prey center that had settled in the center of the teeing area.
Dads played football with their offspring on the fairway and people took photos next to the iconic bridge that crosses the Swilken Burn. Everyone stared at the beautiful grandstands that frame the first and 18th.
Tiger Woods walks the Old Course at St Andrews with Rob McNamara (L) and Justin Thomas (R)
Occasionally a player as good as Viktor Hovland or Will Zalatoris would drop by to play a practice round and the spectators would move neatly to the edge of the fairway so they could tee off and pass.
You wouldn’t see something like that at Lord’s five days before the Ashes, would you?
At the end of the course, Phil Mickelson practiced on his own, watched for free by a handful of spectators who could hardly believe they could be feet away from the man with arguably the best short game in the history of the sport.
Mickelson’s presence reminded us that this pastoral scene, which has been part of St Andrews’ charm for as long as the Open is played, was a stark contrast to what happened in the trenches.
Woods checked Saturday after a stay in Ireland after the JP McManus pro-am
The southpaw, who has contributed significantly to the turmoil in the game thanks to his partnership with the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV series, will not attend the Champions Dinner on Tuesday, no doubt in solidarity with the organization’s face, Greg. Norman, he wasn’t even invited.
That told you everything you needed to know about where the R&A stands and the vague view they have of the idea that the most prestigious major championship organized in a generation could be hijacked, like so many other events, by the conflict.
Rejecting Norman will certainly help, but only up to a point. Behind the scenes, the rumor mill is relentless. Jordan Spieth felt the need to make a statement Friday night reiterating that he will not be the next to join the rebels.
Will it be former Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama? The third LIV event will take place at the end of this month and you can bet the Saudis want at least one or two more big names.
Before all that, we have one last event where all players from both sides of the canyon will be in the same place. A week where the action will be played out under a blessed blue sky with not a drop of rain in the forecast.
Two-time St. Andrews champion Woods is headlining this week’s 150th Open
It will be a week of 400-yard drives and where the biggest controversy could turn out to be that the ball travels too far and destroys the Old Course. After the endless LIV, the return of that old chestnut would mean a refreshing change.
In a nod to the wonders of modern medicine, it’s an event graced by the presence of two-time St. Andrews champion, Tiger Woods. When he decided late last year that he would be in pain for weeks and months to try competitive golf again, this was the event he had in mind, played at his favorite course in the world.
Woods checked into St Andrews on Saturday after a sojourn in Ireland following the JP McManus pro-am.
On Thursday, he played the sublime links on Ballybunion with Rory McIlroy. Imagine if you told 13-year-old Rory, after he had pictures of Tiger plastered all over his bedroom wall, that 20 years later he was going on a friend trip with his idol?
The fact that Woods used a buggy during the pro-am to reduce walking inevitably sparked fears about how much his right leg can stand after he withdrew from his last event, the USPGA Championship in May.
Phil Mickelson single-handedly practiced in St Andrews amid LIV Golf series fallout
All reports suggest the buggy was a precaution and ran well enough at Ballybunion. He should definitely find the relatively flat terrain at St Andrews more to his liking.
It’s amazing to think that this is McIlroy’s 15th year as a professional and he’s only played once in a St Andrews Open. That was in 2010, when he started with a 63, followed by an 80. He still finished in a tie for third.
The Northern Irishman missed a silly ankle ligament injury in 2015, which he picked up playing football the week before, which likely changed his career.
He flew at the time, both the defending champion and the USPGA. As we know, he hasn’t won a major since then. Never underestimate the role that fickle fate plays in the Grand Slams.
This might be the first major since then where you could make a strong case for McIlroy to win.
Greg Norman, CEO of Saudi-backed LIV Golf, not invited to the Champions Dinner
The mental demons that have plagued him seem to have calmed down. It’s almost as if he has become the spokesperson for his sport with the attitude he has taken against LIV, returning the authority to his game.
His handling is back to his majestic best and he is as good as anyone on the greens. The winner of the Claret Jug will have to hole more than his fair share of 6ft putts due to the tricky areas where the flags will be placed and McIlroy is doing well in that area.
Everywhere you look there’s plenty to anticipate, but it could be a few more days before we can all settle down to enjoy it.
The LIV story is now too well entrenched. Jack Nicklaus is in the interrogation room tomorrow and will definitely be asked about it. Martin Slumbers, CEO of the R&A, will certainly have something to say at his press conference on Wednesday.
Coming Thursday, however, the game will put its dirty laundry away. Four golden days in a gentle summer breeze allows us to enjoy all the goodness of golf before Monday’s grim reality brings even more LIV departures and self-destruction.