Any chance for harmony in golf’s civil war appeared to be shot Thursday amid a tension-filled day for LIV Golf members competing in The Open Championship.
The rebel golfers stood out like sore thumbs on the old fairways of St Andrews, where they were subjected to mockery from the crowd before testy exchanges with reporters after the game.
Ian Poulter was LIV Golf’s first great to play on the first round and, despite it being dawn, he was greeted with boos at the iconic first tee.
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He quickly hooked his tee shot almost out of bounds, but recovered to bag a solid three-under round that included a monster 160-foot putt for the Eagle.
Poulter was not the only defector from the PGA and DP World Tours to stage a show at St Andrews to give organizers a big headache.
Dustin Johnson, Talor Gooch and Lee Westwood are all tied for fifth at four under, while Bryson DeChambeau is at three under.
Elsewhere, Phil Mickelson was joined on par by Patrick Reed, who proudly wore LIV Golf branded attire during his game in an openly unabashed gesture about his allegiances.
Mickelson, meanwhile, did his best to stay positive during a tense series of questions from reporters – but ultimately cracked.
The 2013 Claret Jug winner first brushed off a question asking if he was ‘sad’ that he felt it was necessary not to attend a dinner of former champions – which Greg Norman was not invited to – by because of its links with LIV Golf.
A puzzled Mickelson replied, “No, not at all. I think I couldn’t be more excited and ecstatic with where I am.
“I can have golf in my life on a fun, exciting and different scale and allows me to play and compete while doing things outside that I always want to do.”
Pressed further, Mickelson shot back, “Forget it, man. Let it go. You have asked the same question three times. I don’t know what to tell you, I couldn’t be happier.
Mickelson, who reportedly received a registration fee worth around $200m (A$277m) to play at LIV Golf for at least three years, is said not to be drawn to the criticism of Tiger Woods, who said the 52-year-old likes had ‘turned their backs’ on what had helped make them players.
Westwood, however, offered a barbed response when asked if he respects Woods’ opinion.
“I respect Tiger as a golfer,” he said.
The Englishman also got upset when asked about possible tensions between LIV Golf players and non-LIV Golf players on the circuit, accusing the media of ‘stirring it up’.
“I think the media is fueling it and doing everything they can to help it,” Westwood said. “But I think the general public just wants to go out there and see great golf, no matter where it’s played or who’s playing it.”
A reporter denied his claim, before Westwood added: ‘Well, it does. We can sit here and argue all day, but that’s the case.
“I spoke to a lot of people who were there last week – there is no animosity between the players, but there are stories being written. You create problems where there are none. You want to do it that way, fine.
However, Westwood arguably contradicted himself when talking about Woods’ shot at LIV Golf.
“He has a vested interest, doesn’t he? LIV players will talk about the LIV Tour, PGA Tour players who aren’t on the LIV Tour will talk about the PGA Tour and ask about the LIV Tour… I don’t (care) much about people’s opinions. ”
Golf Channel reporter Todd Lewis claimed he had spoken to a number of players who had said off the record that tensions were rising despite Westwood’s attempt to downplay the situation.
“They may not say it publicly, but I’ve spoken to a lot of players and they say ‘yes, there’s tension’. There’s conflict between these two groups and friendships have been tested. for sure,” Lewis said.
Veteran golf writer Jaimie Diaz said the hostility is still “under the covers” but there are signs it could soon boil over.
“Today I spoke to many players, agents and officials – all downplayed any outside friction but said human nature would take over,” Diaz said on Golf Channel.
“When this happens in any workplace, where livelihoods or the fate of a business are at stake and where the bottom line could be affected, things become contentious.”
He added: “There are incipient tensions that are rising that have not been acknowledged, but we are seeing evidence of that.”