US Open played in the shadow of PGA/Saudi merger might be a distraction for some — but not for Brooks Koepka
The merger between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia will dominate discussion at the season’s third major, but for the likes of Brooks Koepka, it’s not a distraction.
It’s going to be difficult for the world’s leading men’s golfers to stay focused on their primary tasks at the US Open this week, given the seismic shifts happening in the sport.
But it could be a welcome change of focus. Despite a future riddled with questions, the season’s third major is precisely the right tournament to concentrate minds on the main thing for a few days — playing golf.
Back in the mainstream
Brooks Koepka, a two-time US Open winner, victor at last month’s PGA Championship and LIV Golf member, is simultaneously the leading figure in the sport, the face of the breakaway and the picture of the future.
With the PGA Tour merging with the Saudi Arabia Public Investment Fund (PIF) — the backer of the rebel LIV Golf league — players such as Koepka are back in the mainstream.
For more than a year they were on the periphery of the sport because of their defection to LIV, only rejoining their erstwhile colleagues at the majors in 2022 and the first part of 2023.
Koekpa’s win at the PGA Championship at Oak Hill was the first time a LIV Golf member won a major in the brief history of the split in the game.
At the time he won it, all of four weeks ago, the golfing world appeared fractured without any healing in sight. And then out of the blue came news of the merger.
Only five people knew it was happening, one of them being PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who was hospitalised this week for an undisclosed medical condition. A natural assumption would be that it might be stress-related and, given the tectonic movements in the sport in the past few weeks, that wouldn’t be surprising.
But for players, however betrayed some might feel, or however vindicated others believe they are, the reality is that they aren’t likely to suffer for the foreseeable future.
Huge prize money will increase, the LIV rebels will be absorbed back into the fold and golf will return to a new normal where the constant prospect of supreme wealth for those good enough to be on tour will remain.
‘Paid no attention’
Which is why it’s unsurprising that Koepka shrugged his shoulders at all the brouhaha of the past week. When you strip it all back, he stays rich and successful and now has the freedom to play in a wider array of events. Or at least he will when the final details of the plan are nailed down.
All through his LIV life, Koepka appeared disinterested in the provenance of the $100-million+ he was earning.
The bone-sawing of a journalist or the public executions of 81 people for vague crimes without a fair trial where evidence suggests “confessions” were extracted through torture, held no discernible interest for him and other LIV defectors.
If that didn’t move Koepka and his LIV colleagues, why would news of a merger that only promises him continued wealth, change his outlook from inside his cosy bubble?
“I haven’t paid too much attention to it, honestly,” Koepka said in reference to the news of the merger. “I’ve been trying to prep for this week. I’m just trying to make sure I come into a major championship — there’s four weeks a year I really care about and this is one of them, and I want to play well.
“I wasn’t going to waste any time on news that happened last week. I saw it. I was sitting at Grove at the bar having breakfast and I saw it on TV. Watched a little bit of the interview, and that was it. Just went out and practised.” Simple for some.
The ‘sacrificial lamb’
However, Rory McIlroy, the PGA’s face of the fight against LIV, felt betrayed and said as much at the Canadian Open last week. But he declined to do a pre-tournament media conference at the US Open, knowing that very few questions would centre on golf or the tournament itself.
It might seem unprofessional, but no one had said and done more than McIlroy over the past 18 months to fight for his tour. He was a “sacrificial lamb” as he put it, in the conflict and he is now collateral damage.
McIlroy is paired with Koepka in the first round at the Los Angeles Country Club, which won’t do much for the Ulsterman’s mood. Koepka won’t be losing any sleep over it though.
“I don’t think there’s really been too much animosity between players in general. I think that’s been a lot more constructed from the media side than the player side,” Koepka said.
“The more chaotic things get, the easier it gets for me. Everything starts to slow down and I am able to focus on whatever I need to focus on while everybody else is dealing with distractions, worried about other things.”
Jon Rahm, the 2023 Masters winner and one of the players who stayed loyal to the PGA Tour, admitted there was still some unhappiness among players because they weren’t consulted about the merger deal.
“There’s a lot of not-answered [sic] questions. It’s tough when it’s the week before a major,” Rahm said. “I’m trying not to think about it as much as possible.
“You want to have faith in management, and I want to have faith that this is the best thing for all of us, but it’s clear that that’s not the consensus.
“The general feeling is that a lot of people feel a bit of betrayal from management. I understand why they had to keep it so secret. I understand we couldn’t make it through a players’ meeting with more than 10 minutes after people spilling the beans right away in some article by you guys already being out there. So I get it. I get the secrecy.
“It’s just not easy as a player that’s been involved, like many others, to wake up one day and see this bombshell. That’s why we’re all in a bit of a state of limbo because we don’t know what’s going on and how much is finalised and how much they can talk about, either.”
The South Africans
The merger and the future will be a hot topic among many players, but there is also the small matter of trying to win one of golf’s biggest tournaments.
England’s Matt Fitzpatrick is back to defend his title, while South Africa is represented by a small, inexperienced contingent.
Retief Goosen was the last South African winner of the US Open, in 2004, and this week the quartet of Deon Germishuys, Thriston Lawrence, Wilco Nienaber and amateur Aldrich Potgieter will represent an entirely new generation attempting to add to the country’s tally of five US Open titles.
The average age of the four young South Africans is 23, with the youngest (Potgieter) being 18 and the oldest (Lawrence) 26.
The US Open has certainly favoured youth of late. The last three US Open champions have all been under the age of 30, and this year’s US Open field includes 13 golfers aged 21 or younger.
Three of the four South Africans will be making their US Open debuts, as will 44 other players in the field.
Of the South Africans, only Nienaber has played in a US Open. That was in 2021 when he finished tied 68th at Torrey Pines.
This year’s US Open drew a record 10,187 entries. DM