Thursday's golf: Defectors open Saudi-funded series; Canton's Piot shoots 1-over 71

Associated Press

St. Albans, England — At a distance it looked like a military flypast and Grenadier Guards trumpeting in a royal-style occasion. Only it wasn’t an extension of Queen Elizabeth II's Jubilee celebrations but the launch of the Saudi-funded golf breakaway, attempting to bring a sense of faux regal pageantry to the rebellion splitting the sport.

On a course just outside north London, the band dressed as imitation infantrymen were there to proclaim the arrival of Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, two of the stars enticed from the PGA Tour to potentially earn hundreds of millions of dollars on the LIV Golf series.

The nine ageing planes rumbling overhead helped to mask the lack of significant crowd noise beyond the occasional shout of “Let’s go Phil!” as he prepared to tee off.

At the same time, the message Thursday from the PGA Tour was being delivered — go off. To all the players who defected to the renegade series, they now face banishment from future tour events. Johnson had already given up his PGA membership, but Mickelson is not ready to.

The fury of LIV Golf — a product of the Saudi sovereign wealth fund — was clear, calling the PGA Tour “vindictive" with a decision that will only deepen the divides. There were no signs of the Saudi backing across the Centurion Club, nor any sponsor branding.

Mickelson was sporting a black cap adorned by his personal logo featuring a silhouette of himself playing golf, replacing the KPMG-branded one that was worn before the corporate sponsors dropped the deal in February after he disparaged the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia. He matched Johnson with a 1-under 69, with Charl Schwartzel leading at 65.

Canton's James Piot,  the reigning U.S. Amateur champion and recently graduated Michigan State golf star, opened with a 1-over 71 and is tied for 16th place among the 48-man field.

Michigan State's James Piot on joining Saudi tour: 'It's about the journey of playing golf'

Across the course, the only branding was from LIV Golf and a sparse number of spectators in attendance. There was intrigue from those who did turn up, accompanied by a desire to see so many of the world's leading players, although none from the top 10.

Schwartzel, the 2011 Masters champion, had a one-stroke lead over fellow South African Hennie du Plessis. Scott Vincent of Zimbabwe and Phachara Khongwatmai of Thailand shot 67.

Unlike many spectators, Jim Dawkins, who has been coming to golf events for six decades, did pay 67 pounds ($84) for his pass to the club between Hemel Hempstead and St. Albans.

“I thought as this was the first tournament of the rebel tour it would be interesting to see how it works and who is playing,” said the 91-year-old Dawkins, who railed against the PGA Tour banning players. “I've seen an awful lot of changes.”

LIV is running curtailed 54-hole, three-day tournaments, with a shotgun start seeing players all tee off on different holes. What confuses Dawkins is the team element.

The field is split into 12 teams with garish logos and brash names, like Johnson‘s 4 Aces and Graeme McDowell’s Niblicks.

“I find this scoreboard difficult to follow,” said Dawkins, who traveled from the south of London. “You have got the players up there. I don't know how the teams are set up."

The top three teams share $5 million on top of the $20 million prize fund per event shared between the golfers individually.

To accept the lavish rewards, the players not only had to overcome concerns about being banned from the PGA Tour and events like the Ryder Cup, but also moral doubts.

This is a series viewed as being part of Saudi Arabia's efforts, branded “sportswashing” by human rights groups, to wipe away the stain of the kingdom's abuses.

"It's absolute rubbish, it's just a sport," said Colin Chambers, an 80-year-old friend of Dawkins. “When you think about the Chinese, what they do, and we are still happy to go to their Olympics."

PGA Tour

Toronto — Wyndham Clark started the week with a late charge to play his way into the U.S. Open in a qualifier, and then he stayed hot Thursday in the RBC Canadian Open for a 7-under 63 to take the first-round lead.

Clark opened with five birdies in nine holes and kept bogeys off his card at St. George's Golf and Country Club for the third round of his PGA Tour career at 63 or lower.

Matt Fitzpatrick was a stroke back, and Doug Ghim and Harold Varner III followed at 65.

Defending champion Rory McIlroy had six birdies in his round of 66 that left him tied with Tony Finau, Lee Hodges and Mackenzie Hughes, who would love nothing more than to become the first Canadian to win his national open since 1954.

McIlroy had to wait three years to defend his title because of the COVID-19 pandemic that canceled golf's fourth-oldest championship the last two years. He closed with a 61 to win by seven shots at Hamilton.

“I felt like the course was there to go even lower just from the rain and how receptive it was,” McIlroy said. “Overall, very happy with the start of the week, especially coming off a disappointing weekend at the Memorial last weekend.”

Clark didn't break par over the final three rounds at the Memorial, and he wasn't looking good in his 36-hole qualifier on Monday. But then he put together five birdies in an 11-hole stretch that allowed him to get into the U.S. Open next week at The Country Club outside Boston.

“It's nice to see some putts go in,” Clark said. “I haven’t shot a low one in a while. I’ve had a lot of couple under par, 3-, 4-under pars in my last few events, but really felt like I left a lot of shots out there. This round I maximized pretty much everything out there.”

Clark putted for birdie on all but one hole, and he holed an 8-foot par putt on No. 12 early in his round.

Fitzpatrick started and finished his round with a birdie, holing a 35-foot putt on the par-3 eighth hole for a 64.

"Really, really happy with the way I played today, just solid all around," Fitzpatrick said. “Had a couple opportunities to chip it a little bit closer, but other than that, I’m being really picky. Everything in my game was going well.”

PGA champion Justin Thomas, who wanted to play the week before a major because it worked so well the last time, opened with a 69.

Justin Thomas of the USA watches his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Canadian Open in Toronto on Thursday, June 9, 2022.

Sam Burns, coming off a victory two weeks ago at Colonial, opened with a 67 in the afternoon, and top-ranked Masters champion Scottie Scheffler had a 69. The Canadian Open has attracted five of the top 10 players in the world.

They were keenly aware of a rival tour going on across the Atlantic in England, the first of the LIV Golf Invitational series in which 17 players who are PGA Tour members have been declared ineligible for the rest of the season.

McIlroy said he still might watch some of the streaming because he's a golf fan, he's curious and he has some friends in the field. But he's a little skeptical about the names assigned to the 12 teams at LIV Golf, such as Niblicks and Cleeks.

“Certainly not going out to buy any team merchandise any time soon,” McIlroy said.