Saudi and LIV a topic with no answers as US Open approaches

Jon Rahm hits form the third tee during a practice round of the U.S. Open golf tournament at Los Angeles Country Club, Monday, June 12, 2023, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

LOS ANGELES — The U.S. Open trophy is no longer in Matt Fitzpatrick’s possession. The questions about Saudi involvement in golf and the LIV Golf circuit won’t go away.

Not much has changed from Brookline to Los Angeles, from one U.S. Open to the next one, only the nature of the questions and the vagueness — and fatigue — of the answers.

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“The whole thing is confusing, I guess,” Fitzpatrick said Monday. “It was confusing last year.”

LIV Golf had just played its first tournament going into the U.S. Open last year, and the uncertainty was whether it would gain traction and who else might join. Now it’s about the blockbuster announcement last week that the PGA Tour — in the midst of a bitter antitrust lawsuit with LIV and having stood its ground on legacy and the source of LIV money — has agreed to partner with the Saudi Arabia wealth fund that pays for LIV Golf.

Players were blindsided by the agreement, which has been described as a framework because there still is no meat to the business merger. They still have no answers. No one does.

“I really know as much as you guys know, to be honest,” said British Open champion Cameron Smith, who defected to LIV after the PGA Tour season ended last August. “I haven’t been told much at all. I’m just taking it as it goes along.”

PGA Tour players complained about getting news of the stunning development off social media (CNBC broke the embargo about the time the tour was notifying players). Smith said Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Public Investment Fund, called him and a few other LIV players shortly before Al-Rumayyan — whom Smith refers to as “H.E.” for His Excellency — joined PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan on CNBC.

“I guess the first reaction was I thought it was kind of a joke,” Smith said. “And then H.E. gave me a call and kind of explained what was going on. He didn’t really explain too much. I think there’s still a lot of stuff to be worked out, and as time goes on, we’ll get to know more and more. But there’s definitely a lot of curious players, I think, on both sides as to what the future is going to look like.”

The timing isn’t great. The U.S. Open is the third major of the year and presents a new challenge for most of the players because Los Angeles Country Club has never hosted the major known as the toughest test in golf.

Monday was the first full day of practice, and even for those players who snuck over to the North course during the West Coast swing have not seen it dry and fast.

There are angles to learn. Two par 3s are longer than 280 yards, another could play as short as 80 yards. Expect to hear the term “barranca,” which in simple terms is a wide ditch of native grasses and soil that winds through the front nine.

And there is LIV and the Saudi agreement, just no answers.

“I don’t think anyone knows what’s going on. Are we signing with the PIF, are we not signing with the PIF? I have no idea,” Fitzpatrick said. “Even though I guess it is confusing, it’s pretty clear that nobody knows what’s going on apart from about four people in the world.”

Billy Horschel played the front nine of LACC on Sunday in peace. He played the back nine Monday and walked right off the 18th green into a television interview.

He can talk as well as anyone, even in circles.

Yes, he was shocked when the news broke last Tuesday. Since then, he has become more patient to wait on details to figure out what it all means.

“There’s a structure of an agreement, but that’s all there is,” Horschel said. “Until all that information is figured out and shared with us, I’m emotionless — which is rare for me. And even more rare is I’m not going to give a thought or an opinion because I don’t have enough information to speak.”

Rory McIlroy must feel the same way. He canceled his scheduled press conference for Tuesday. Fitzpatrick thought long about whether he should be compensated for showing loyalty to the tour before saying, “I’ll pass.” When another question on the topic was asked, a USGA official interjected to put the focus on U.S. Open.

Oh, yes. That.

It was like that a year ago at the U.S. Open, especially with Phil Mickelson played on American soil for the first time since LIV started its league. Only later was it discovered the PGA Tour suspended him for his involvement in recruiting players to LIV Golf.

By Thursday, the focus shifted to The Country Club, and by Sunday, Fitzpatrick was holding the shiny silver trophy. Much is expected this week.

“Listen, it can be a distraction. There’s no doubt about it,” Horschel said. “If guys are worrying about it, thinking about it, talking about it all the time and they’re not focusing on their game and what matters at the end of the day … all you can do is play good golf, and hopefully all the other stuff works out the way it should.”

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