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In golf’s turf war, players choose what means most to them: History, money, morality or security

The PGA Tour, through proxies, talks legacy, leaving the moral gymnastics to others. The ham-handed disrupter, meanwhile, stumble through predictable tropes like growing the game and “Golf, But Louder” (that’s a thing on the LIV Golf website, look it up).

Largely unheard in this grand cacophony of chicanery are the real protagonists – the players. After years of veiled threats and ghostly figures moving through the shadows, the face of LIV Golf emerged (at 8:20 p.m. ET on Tuesday, for those keeping track).

The partial field for the first LIV event next week in London was headlined by Dustin Johnson. It was a full-stop moment considering that DJ had pledged his allegiance to the PGA Tour as recently as February.

“Dustin has been contemplating the opportunity off-and-on for the past couple of years,” Johnson’s manager, David Winkle with Hambric Sports, said in a statement. “Ultimately, he decided it was in his and his family’s best interest to pursue it. Dustin has never had any issue with the PGA Tour and is grateful for all it has given him, but in the end, felt this was too compelling to pass up.”

Without Phil Mickelson, who has been closely tied to LIV Golf but remains in an exile of his own making, DJ is the star power the Saudi-backed LIV event desperately needed and a draw, however dated, that the PGA Tour can’t ignore. All of the legacy and moral arguments aside, DJ brings a credibility to the breakaway circuit. But on the macro, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman shouldn’t be leaning into this particular ally.

Millionaires circumventing the status quo to collect more millions via the patronage of a murderous and oppressive regime is exactly what Mickelson put a voice to earlier this year when he said the quiet part out loud.

“They’re scary mother------- to get involved with,” Mickelson told the Fire Pit Collective website. “We know they killed [Washington Post reporter and U.S. resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay.”

Mickelson also dragged the PGA Tour in the same breath for what he called “manipulative, coercive, strong-arm tactics.” But it was the acknowledgement from someone who appeared bound for the LIV riches that this is nothing more than sportswashing, that gave the Tour a valuable upper hand. The game’s best could not, would not, ignore the obvious moral ambiguity for more millions, would they?

The answer is predictably more complicated than that.

LIV Golf was never for Rory McIlroy. But McIlroy understands why some players have decided that it is for them.

DJ trading his morals for millions is an ugly business that won’t play well on social media and beyond. But what about the other 41 players who, metaphorically, locked arms with LIV Golf late Tuesday?

Rory McIlroy has been the most outspoken critic of everything LIV Golf stands for among the play-for-pay set. In 2020, when the earliest vestiges of the league emerged, it was the Northern Irishman who dug the hardest line in the sand.

“I would like to be on the right side of history with this one, just sort of as Arnold [Palmer] was with the whole Greg Norman thing in the ‘90s,” McIlroy said. “I value a lot of other things over money, and that’s sort of my stance on it at this point.”

As recently as February, when DJ and the vast majority of the game’s stars moved in line with the Tour, McIlroy flippantly dismissed LIV Golf: “Who else have you got to fill the field?” he asked.

But on Wednesday at the Memorial, McIlroy put a human face on those who have decided to ply their trade with LIV Golf, that Norman has been unable or unwilling to show. For McIlroy this was suddenly personal. He didn’t name names, but it was clear his mind raced to former European Ryder Cup teammates Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter when asked about the LIV field.

The field for the first LIV Golf Invitational Series event, which will be played June 9-11 in London, has been released.

“I have some very close friends that are playing in this event in London, and I certainly wouldn’t want to stand in their way, for them to do what they feel is right for themselves,” McIlroy said. “It’s not something that I would do personally. But I certainly understand why some of the guys have went, and it’s something that we are all just going to keep an eye on and see what happens over these next few weeks.”

That’s a good minute away from being “on the right side of history,” but McIlroy has proven throughout his career to be both thoughtful and willing to evolve and learn.

For McIlroy this isn’t about DJ and the possibility that other stars might join him so much as it is the construction of a choice. The likes of McIlory and Johnson are wealthy enough to allow themselves the luxury of a moral decision, but most of the names on the LIV Golf field list are not.

Richard Bland, a jovial and quick-witted 49-year-old from Burton-on-Trent, England, is relishing a late-in-life resurgence thanks to his victory at last year’s British Masters. Bland has earned $7.2 million in a DP World Tour career that began in 1998, which probably sounds like a fortune to some, but when you’re travelling the world and losing more often than not, it goes fast.

For Bland, this wasn’t a decision that afforded him the luxury of the moral high ground.

“The opportunity is in front of me to make the next part of my life very, very comfortable. I understand people thinking that I could still do that playing the DP World [Tour], but I look at it I’m 50 years old in six months,” he told Golf Channel last week. “I’m a pretty realistic guy and I know it’s not going to last, so sometimes you just have to take the opportunities that are right there in front of you.”

For Bland and most of the players in next week’s LIV field, this isn’t about a legacy or the sliding scale of moral flexibility. This is about what’s best for him and his family.