Phil, Trump, Saudi Arabia: Chaos swirls as PGA Championship begins

·8 min read

Golf thrives on steady, unsurprising repetition. Players practice their swings and strokes until they become rote, travel in insulated comfort, compete on a prescribed schedule. Predictability is both the routine and the ultimate goal.

The PGA Championship, this year’s second major, tees off this week in conditions that are anything but routine. The defending champion, still wandering in golf’s wilderness, isn’t in attendance. The course itself had barely a year to prepare to host golf royalty after the PGA stripped the tournament from its prior host. And the players are still weighing the threats and opportunities of a lucrative rival tour funded with some of the most controversial money on the planet.

Chaos isn’t the ideal way to start a major week, but that’s where golf stands in 2022.

The history of this particular PGA Championship dates back to 2014. That’s when the PGA of America awarded the 2022 PGA Championship to Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey and its owner, a certain well-known New York real estate developer/TV reality show host. This was a year before Donald Trump would run for president, and the honor marked his long-desired final ascent into golf’s elite.

Trump had sought to buy his way into three different major rotations — first, by trying to secure a U.S. Open at Bedminster. That effort failed when the USGA informed Trump in 2011 that Bedminster would not be hosting a U.S. Open. Three years later, Trump purchased the venerable Turnberry, part of the Open Championship rota, with the expectation that it would host the Open in 2020.

Then Trump ran for president, setting in motion events that would vaporize all his golf dreams. His incendiary rhetoric caused the R&A to withdraw Turnberry from consideration to host future Opens. (The 2020 Open was canceled because of the pandemic.) The PGA of America stood by Trump, however, through all of his public controversies … right up until Jan. 6, 2021.

When supporters of Trump, protesting the results of the 2020 election, attacked the Capitol in a violent riot, PGA officials knew they could no longer remain above the fray. Two days later, the PGA withdrew the 2022 championship from Bedminster.

“We find ourselves in a political situation not of our making,” Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, told The Associated Press shortly after the decision. “We’re fiduciaries for our members, for the game, for our mission and for our brand. And how do we best protect that? Our feeling was given the tragic events of Wednesday that we could no longer hold it at Bedminster. The damage could have been irreparable. The only real course of action was to leave.”

The PGA leaped without a net — there was no backup plan in place, no course in mind as a replacement — but soon enough, a net appeared. The PGA initially considered fast-tracking Valhalla (Louisville, Kentucky), which is slated to host the 2024 championship. But Southern Hills, which was already on the schedule to host the 2021 Senior PGA, volunteered to ramp up its commitment. Eager to get back in the major rotation — the course in Tulsa, Oklahoma, last hosted the PGA in 2007 — Southern Hills came aboard at the major equivalent of the last second, with barely 16 months to spare.

Donald Trump, pictured here in 2014 when his Bedminster course won the 2022 PGA Championship. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)
Donald Trump, pictured here in 2014 when his Bedminster course won the 2022 PGA Championship. (Brendan McDermid / Reuters)

Phil Mickelson's rise and fall

Four months after the PGA awarded the 2022 championship to Southern Hills, Phil Mickelson ensured the 2021 version would stand as one of golf’s greatest tournaments ever. At age 50, Mickelson became the oldest major winner ever when he triumphed at Kiawah Island. The moment when he approached the 18th green with the entire gallery scrambling behind him made for an iconic image.

Twelve months later, Mickelson isn’t in the field. His reputation lies in tatters, destroyed by a series of self-inflicted wounds as a result of his connection to the ongoing Saudi-backed LIV Golf endeavor. In February, Mickelson blithely brushed off Saudi Arabia’s human rights and humanitarian transgressions in the interest of trying to coerce the PGA Tour into coughing up more revenue for players; the blowback has effectively forced Mickelson into hiding for the last three months. He skipped the Masters, and informed the PGA on Friday night that he wouldn’t be playing this year.

Mickelson is the first apparently healthy player not to defend his major championship the following year. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy missed PGA Championships in 2008 and 2015 because of injury, and Payne Stewart died in a plane crash a few months after winning the 1999 U.S. Open.

While many players have been critical of Mickelson’s comments, the passage of a few months’ time has softened their public stances. On Tuesday, McIlroy, who blasted Mickelson as “naive, selfish, egotistical, ignorant” at the time, called Mickelson’s absence “unfortunate” and “sad.”

“This should be a celebration, right? He won a major championship at 50 years old. It was possibly his last big, big moment in the game of golf,” McIlroy added. “ I think he should be here this week and celebrating what a monumental achievement he achieved last year.”

“I think we all would have liked to have Phil here and tee it up and see how he would have done,” Viktor Hovland said. “The way that he won it last year was pretty spectacular. So you know, it's just a weird situation.”

Phil's last great golf moment. (David Yeazell / USA TODAY Sports)
Phil's last great golf moment. (David Yeazell / USA TODAY Sports)

The LIV Golf question

Mickelson’s return remains uncertain. Looming in the more immediate future: the inaugural LIV Golf event, slated for next month, the week before the U.S. Open. The PGA Tour denied releases for players seeking to play in the event, leaving many players — including Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and Lee Westwood — in bureaucratic limbo. The PGA Tour has threatened lifetime bans for players who jump to the LIV Golf tour.

“There's some guys that are probably in a position where the consequence may not matter,” Rickie Fowler said. “They may just be ready to go play and not look back.”

That raises the question of whether players who jump to the LIV Golf tour would be eligible to play in the majors. PGA officials indicated that at present, they’re inclined to stick with order as it exists now, not the chaos that a new tour would bring.

“We're a fan of the current ecosystem and world golf ranking system and everything else that goes into creating the best field in golf,” Waugh said Tuesday. “We don't think [LIV Golf] is good for the game and we are supportive of that ecosystem. We have our own bylaws that we will follow towards [setting future PGA Championship] fields.” Those bylaws require players in the PGA Championship to be part of a recognized professional golf tour … which, at present, does not describe LIV Golf.

Still, that may not be a decisive factor in some players’ decision. For all the heat that Mickelson — and LIV Golf chairman Greg Norman — drew in the last few months, it’s worth remembering that professional golfers view their world and their sport through a very different prism than the outside world. What seems black-and-white to golf’s observers and critics is much more shades-of-gray — or green — to tour pros. The purse for the debut LIV Golf event at Centurion Golf Club in London is $25 million for the 48-player field, with an astounding $4 million going to the winner. For comparison: Scottie Scheffler picked up $2.7 million for winning the Masters last month.

While many pros backpedaled away from the LIV tour in the wake of Mickelson’s comments, Fowler, for instance, said Monday that he hasn’t yet closed the door.

“I haven't necessarily made a decision one way or the other,” he said. "I've mentioned in the past, do I currently think that the PGA Tour is the best place to play? I do. Do I think it can be better? Yes.” He framed the LIV Golf issue as one of “competition,” not politics, and said he found their proposals “interesting.”

Either way, golf stands at a crossroads, and the center of that crossroads, at the moment, is in Tulsa, Oklahoma. It’s been a long, twisting road to get to this point, and there are many more turns ahead.

“We've got a lot of time between now and (the 2023 PGA Championship at) Oak Hill,” Waugh said, “and I think we all have to sort of take a deep breath, see how it plays out, and what the ecosystem looks like at that point.”

“Honestly, I'm rooting for it all to be over,” McIlroy said. “I'm just so sick of talking about it. I've made my decision, and I know where I want to play, and I'm not standing in anyone's way, and I'm not saying that they shouldn't go over there and play if that's what they feel is right for them, then 100 percent they should go and do it.”

The PGA Championship tees off on Thursday morning and wraps up Sunday evening. After that, where the sport goes next is anyone’s guess.

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.