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Rory McIlroy drubbed Phil Mickelson, but golf’s us-vs.-them era is only starting

Phil Mickelson had a first round to forget at the U.S. Open. (Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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BROOKLINE, Mass. — If Phil Mickelson has been cast as the lead villain in golf’s very real and nearly all-encompassing them-vs.-us conversation, he showed up Thursday afternoon looking the part: black hat, black shirt, black belt, dark gray pants, black shoes, wraparound shades. Yet as he arrived at the Country Club’s first tee to begin his U.S. Open, the catcalls were mostly embraces. He turned 52 on Thursday. Golf claps all around.

“Birthday boy!”

“We love you, Phil!”

“What do you say, Lefty?”

Before, finally, the inevitable: “Phil, Celtics giving 3½. Who do you like? Zarba’s the lead official!”

He was beginning what would be an arduous 5½-hour round to open the only major he has never won. The dig referred to his penchant for wagering the money he has earned on athletic contests, not his newfound source of wealth. Chuckles throughout the gallery. No harm done.

Still, there’s no overstating the cloud that hangs over not just the 122nd version of the national championship but the sport as a whole. It has divided the 156-man field into three categories: those who have joined the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Invitational Series, those who have pledged allegiance to the PGA Tour and those who have stayed for now but still might go.

At the U.S. Open, it’s Rory McIlroy and a lot of golfers you don’t know

Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion who teed off 11 minutes before Phil and likewise received warm applause, are the shiniest objects to depart the PGA Tour. There will be more. Rory McIlroy, the four-time major winner who received adulation here with every confident stride, won’t be one of them. He is carrying the torch for the establishment — and aggressively so. On Sunday at the Canadian Open, he boasted that his 21st PGA Tour win was “one more than somebody else.”

Related: Greg Norman, the star of yesteryear whom the Saudis tapped to lead the LIV Golf effort, won 20 PGA Tour events.

LIV Golf is already vexing the PGA Tour and its sleepless players

“I’m just being me,” McIlroy said Thursday. “I’m living my life. I’m doing what I think is right and trying to play the best golf that I possibly can. I wasn’t asked to be put here. I wasn’t trying to be in this position. I’m just being me.”

The PGA Tour needs him to be him. If the U.S. Open is really cast as righteous vs. renegade, then the early advantage clearly goes to McIlroy — whose opening 67 left him one shot off the lead at 3 under par — over Mickelson, who four-putted the sixth and generally looked dazed and uninterested en route to an 8-over 78. A six-time major winner, he is an established star who has morphed into a maverick. He is also decidedly unlikely for the weekend.

But this isn’t Phil vs. Rory. It is, for sure, LIV vs. the world. What’s happening here — not on the course but in the discourse — is unprecedented in modern golf. In a normal U.S. Open week over the past quarter-century, a primary pretournament topic would be the form or the absence of Tiger Woods, the only true A-list actor the sport employs. Yet Woods’s name has been on essentially no lips here. (He’s not here because he needed more time to rest his ironclad leg after last month’s grueling PGA Championship, from which he withdrew after three rounds.)

When Woods does reappear — currently slated to be in July at St. Andrews for the British Open — there’s little chance this mess will be straightened out.

When has one of the major American pro sports leagues — NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, WNBA or MLS — been attacked by an upstart as the PGA Tour is being bombarded now? The 1980s, when the USFL tried to lure NFL talent — Herschel Walker and Steve Young come to mind — for a summer season? That venture lasted three seasons and died a swift death when the owner of the New Jersey Generals — some guy by the name of Trump — pushed to move the season to the fall to compete against the NFL. They never played another game.

LIV Golf? At the moment, at least, it feels like it has more legs. This is more than an existential threat to the way professional golf is staged and the way professional golfers make their schedules and their livings. This is an actual threat. To survive, the USFL needed to make money. Money to LIV Golf — and its oil-rich Saudi backers — is irrelevant. Need more? Put another drill in the desert. It will flow.

So part of the reason golf’s status quo is so shaken isn’t just LIV’s existence but its built-in viability. LIV Golf will go away not because the PGA Tour somehow triumphs by banishing talent that departed and keeping the rest in the fold. LIV Golf will go away if and only if the Saudis decide to turn off the spigot.

When golfers ignore who signs the checks, they miss what’s being bought

What McIlroy and some other prominent young stars — Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth — are doing in voicing their preference for the PGA Tour is admirable not because the tour deserves blind loyalty but because they’re not selling out to take money from a regime with an abhorrent record on human rights. The fans at the Country Club might be tepid in their angst over the move by Mickelson and others, but the division in the sport is genuine.

After just a single LIV Golf event, the disruption is so deep that it’s clear the powers that be — the U.S. Golf Association, the R&A, the DP World Tour (which used to be called the European Tour) and Augusta National Golf Club — must convene to figure out a way forward.

Is it realistic for the USGA and the R&A — which stage the U.S. Open and British Open, respectively — to ban LIV players? It wasn’t this week, and it isn’t next month at St. Andrews. The tournaments are billed as open, so how do they close?

“We did sit down and have a long conversation about a week before the U.S. Open [and asked], ‘Did where somebody else played and what promoter they played it with disqualify them for this event?’ ” USGA CEO Mike Whan said this week. “We decided no on that, with all the awareness that not everyone would agree with that decision.”

Jon Rahm, Collin Morikawa fight through the weird to begin U.S. Open

More decisions are ahead. It’s impossible to predict which way they will go. What’s already apparent is that guaranteed money and no-cut, 54-hole tournaments are appealing — just not universally.

“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again,” said Spain’s Rahm, the defending champion here. “So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

The key phrase in all of that: “right now.” The sport is changing — and fast. Eventually this weekend will become about the golf, as a major championship should be. But after a champion is crowned Sunday evening, Monday morning will dawn with the same nagging questions: Who will leave next? How will the PGA Tour and its partners respond? And what will professional golf look like next year at this time?

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