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‘I hate being hated’: LIV Golf’s new recruits face a harsh reality

Harold Varner III competed in the FedEx Cup playoffs before leaving the PGA Tour for LIV Golf. (Julio Cortez/AP)

For Harold Varner III, signing a contract with the LIV Golf Invitational Series amounted to a “financial breakthrough,” life-changing money that will ensure his son will have “a life I could have only dreamt about growing up.” But the day the news became public and the golf world formally learned Varner was jumping from the PGA Tour to the Saudi-funded breakaway series — “It sucked,” Varner said.

Plenty of fans on social media offered support, but Varner couldn’t shake the inevitable backlash. “Damn, and here we all were thinking you were a good guy,” one critic wrote. “Money over legacy,” another offered. “How’s it feel to be used?” a third asked.

“Who likes to be hated? It’s terrible,” Varner said Wednesday, speaking at a news conference in advance of LIV Golf’s Boston event. “I hate being hated. I’d rather not even be known than be hated.”

British Open winner Cameron Smith defects from PGA Tour to LIV Golf

The latest wave of players to join LIV Golf is different from the early batches. For starters, the group making its LIV debut this week includes two top-20 players — No. 2 Cameron Smith and No. 19 Joaquin Niemann — giving the upstart series its most formidable field to date. But these new LIV signees also knew what to expect — from the fiery fan reactions to the possibility they will be snubbed by the Official World Golf Ranking system and excluded from future majors.

“I purposely read them all,” Varner said of the fan feedback. “Everyone says don’t get on social media. That’s stupid. I’m not ashamed of being Harold. I’m ashamed that we don’t spread love. We don’t spread — ‘Hey, man, I get it. It’s not what I want you to do, I might be disappointed for you, but you go do your thing.’ I thought there would be more of that.”

Smith largely avoided social media. His LIV alliance had been rumored for weeks, and he’s reportedly pocketing more than $100 million to make the jump. Speaking about his decision for the first time Wednesday, he said that “for me, the biggest attraction was spending more time at home. Getting that part of my life back.”

Analysis: It has been a good week for LIV Golf — and for the PGA Tour, too

Smith said he hadn’t been back to his native Australia in three years and the looser LIV schedule will give him more time to visit family and friends. He also offered praise for the LIV product, which includes a team competition and is trying to attract a younger audience.

“I think this is the future of golf,” Smith told reporters. “I think it needs to change. Particularly as our golf fans become younger, I think we need to do something to make it exciting for them. I think it’s the right move for sure.”

By virtue of winning this year’s British Open, Smith has exemptions into the majors for the next five years. Other LIV players signed on without such guarantees. LIV officials remain hopeful their events — which feature 54 holes, 48-player fields, shotgun starts and no cuts — will be eventually recognized by the OWGR.

“I hope that these world ranking points will sort themselves out before my exemption is up,” Smith said. “I think to the fans of major championship golf, it may be a little bit unfair on them. I think majors is about having the best guys in the best field on the best golf courses.”

Varner competed in all four majors this season, making the cut at three of them. The 32-year-old had hoped for many more opportunities.

“This is my first year playing in every major, so it was cool,” said Varner, who also picked up his first win this season. “But I think it’s way cooler making sure my kid doesn’t have to worry about anything.”

Before making the jump, he spoke with fellow PGA Tour pros and also met with Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner. But as Varner weighed his options, he said he had to disregard some of the noise and the anticipated backlash.

“I think it’s very easy to get in a situation where you do what everyone else says you should do,” he said. “I don’t know. I just sat there — I think it’s pretty bad when my wife is like: “F--- everybody. Do what you want to do.’ And I was like, that is so cool. My wife is the most nicest person. . . . So it was on me and that’s what men do: They provide, protect and try to do more, like any other job.”

LIV Golf joins its players in lawsuit, intensifying feud with PGA Tour

In response to the threat posed by LIV Golf, the PGA Tour has embarked on measures to make the tour more lucrative for golfers. Fans on the courses have been supportive of the LIV players, but the feedback on social media has not always been as kind.

“There’s no right or wrong to their opinion, and they have their opinion for their own reasons,” said Marc Leishman, an Australian who will make his LIV debut this week. “As much as they are entitled to that, we are entitled to make a decision that’s in our best interests. So you deal with that criticism the best you can and try and block it out.”

LIV Golf is staging its fourth event, beginning Friday, at the International outside Boston. While the previous events have featured some of the game’s biggest names — including Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka — adding Smith, a top-ranked player whose best golf is probably still ahead of him, was considered a major coup.

Who are the LIV golfers? They range from the famous to the anonymous.

While the LIV launch has cast the sport into a state of turmoil and uncertainty, its players have faced heavy criticism for aligning themselves with their deep-pocketed Saudi benefactors, who offered most golfers far more money than they could expect to earn on the PGA Tour.

While many players have tiptoed around the lucrative contract offers and largely avoided discussing Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Varner — who grew up playing on a municipal course in Gastonia, N.C. — was remarkably forthcoming and said the money was simply too good to pass up.

“For a kid that grew up where I grew up, it was an opportunity for me to just make sure my kid never would be in that situation, ever,” he said, “and that means the world to me.”