No major has ever been staged against a backdrop quite so toxic as the 104th US PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Oklahoma this week.
In a part of the nation where key early battles in the American Civil War took place, it is the golfers who are now bitterly divided and ready to split into two camps. On one side, the youthful unionists, happy with the extraordinary amounts they are making on the long-established PGA Tour. On the other, the grumpy old rebels, ready to jump ship and forsake their principles in favour of the easy millions on offer from the sportswashing Saudis.
Who could possibly have predicted it would come to this a year ago, when Phil Mickelson became the oldest major winner in history with a classic story of beating Father Time that resonated way beyond the sport’s traditional boundaries?
Phil Mickelson and Greg Norman talk on a practice round prior to the PIF Saudi International
Now it is an all-too-familiar tale of latent greed that threatens irrevocable harm to the game, with Mickelson both the instigator and the principal fall guy. It sums up the troubled, present state of the sport that the man who would have been feted down every fairway in less divisive times does not even feel in the right frame of mind to make it to the first tee. On Friday, Mickelson announced he would not be defending his title. His exile that began in January goes on.
It was at the PGA at Kiawah Island 12 months ago that the first rumblings of a breakaway tour were heard. Behind the scenes, Saudi representatives met with players and agents. We now know Mickelson was a prime mover on behalf of the Saudis. He was consumed with bitterness at what he considered the ‘obnoxious greed’ of the PGA Tour in denying him the ability to organise his own media rights, even though there is not a major sport allowing such a facility, nor could survive with one.
While everyone else was saluting Mickelson after the sacrifices he had made to win a major just a month shy of his 51st birthday, the man himself was making his plans to tear the game in two.
The American is both the instigator and the fall guy for the attempted Saudi takeover of golf
Greg Norman has landed himself in hot water after an ill-advised comment about the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi
Mickelson seemed to have plenty of other players on board and ready to join the Saudis for incredible sums until he gave two deeply damaging interviews at the start of the year that would lead to his prolonged sabbatical.
In the first, he burned his bridges with many of the young stars and the hierarchy with a full-frontal assault on the PGA Tour. In the other, he perhaps revealed his true thoughts about the Saudis, calling them ‘scary motherf***ers’.
Over the past few months, the fall-out has been unedifying, to say the least. The PGA Tour tilted its axis in favour of the young superstars and convinced them all to remain on board. That left Mickelson and a corps of veteran European Ryder Cup heroes on the other side.
In a significant nod to their strategic alliance with the DP World Tour — formerly the European Tour — Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour, took everyone by surprise last week in denying conflicting event releases to any member who wanted to play in the inaugural Saudi tournament at St Albans next month.
Justin Thomas (pictured), part of the younger cohort of the tour, told the older players that if they wanted to go, they should
Cheered on by twentysomethings such as Justin Thomas and Will Zalatoris, it has left Mickelson and the fortysomethings such as Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in a quandary, knowing if they ignore the edict it could lead to a ban, not only from the PGA Tour but in majors, too.
Greg Norman has vowed to defend them in court, arguing it is restraint of trade, and pay all their legal costs if such a threat is made — but would the players themselves want to go down this route?
‘If they want to go, they should go,’ cried an exasperated Thomas last week, clearly tired of it all. Many of those linked with the Saudi cause, from Westwood to Poulter, Sergio Garcia to Martin Kaymer, will be in Tulsa this week.
Sergio Garcia, long considered a darling of the sport, is rumoured to be tempted by the Saudi breakaway
A sulphurous atmosphere is certain, although at least with Mickelson’s absence we are spared the most pungent odour of all. It now looks as if his return will be at the Saudi shambles at St Albans.
At PGA HQ, meanwhile, they issued the usual platitudes about how Mickelson ‘will be missed’ but they had a hollow ring. Last week, Seth Waugh, their CEO, had fretted openly about Mickelson’s presence ‘turning the event into a media circus’. We are spared that, at least.
Given a customary run of events, the defending champ should have been celebrating his 100th career major as a professional this week. He is stuck on 98, after skipping the Masters as well in disgrace, and who knows when he will play his 99th. The US Open at rowdy Brookline next month, where the raucous Bostonians are never slow to tell sportsmen how they feel? Good luck with that.
Lee Westwood, one of the senior members of the tour, is another that is thought to be close to being prized away
As for this week, much of the attention will now inevitably settle on Tiger Woods at a course where he won this title in 2007.
Like Tiger, Southern Hills has undergone plenty of surgery over the past 15 years to make it an ample test for this generation.
The course will also benefit from the change of date for this major, from August to May. Back in 2007, the tournament was played in temperatures over 40 degrees but the comparatively cool Oklahoma spring should prove ideal.
Let us hope, therefore, that a brief truce is called in the game’s civil war. Is it too much to ask that for one week at least we can talk eagles rather than legals, and a major that matters rather than Saudi events that do not? Sadly — even without Mickelson’s poisonous presence — it probably is.
Southern Hills has undergone plenty of surgery since Tiger Woods’s win there in 2007