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Golf’s uncertain future: The spotlight is on Boston, but it’s not all good news

US Open Week should be a purely festive time at The Country Club, but the LIV controversy is inescapable.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Follow along with live updates and analysis from the US Open

As the US Open gets underway Thursday at The Country Club in Brookline, the foundation of professional golf has never been on shakier ground. Rocked by internal division and exposed by a public power struggle, there is a decidedly uncertain future ahead.

With the new Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Series on one side, all drenched in moral turpitude and blood money, and the old PGA Tour on the other, all puffed up on its moral high ground and corporate money, there is little room for the average golf fan to find footing.

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And that’s not good for anyone.

“It’s sad,” is how Justin Thomas put it Monday. “This is the US Open, and this is an unbelievable venue, a place with so much history, an unbelievable field, so many story lines, and yet that seems to be what all the questions are about.

“That’s unfortunate. That’s not right to the USGA. That’s not right for the US Open. That’s not right for us players. But that’s, unfortunately, where we’re at right now.”

There is, in the words of two-time US Open champion Brooks Koepka, a “black cloud” hovering over the event. As usual, Koepka, golf’s all-world malcontent, used the right words to take aim at the wrong target, blaming the media rather than the storm itself.

This is no media creation. But neither is it some simple debate over moral principle, even if the LIV defectors deserve to lose that debate at every turn, so eager, willing, and content they are to cash millions of dollars from a regime driven to legitimize itself by using the world stage that sports offers.

They call it “sportswashing,” and that’s not a media creation either. It’s the reprehensible route Saudi Arabia is taking in the attempt to erase its state-sanctioned murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi or make us forget that 15 of the 19 hijackers responsible for 9/11 were Saudi. No wonder a group of family members of 9/11 victims wrote scathing letters to the LIV golfers decrying their choice of money over memory.

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But for those golfers, that part of the story is written and finished. The hard part is hearing them repeatedly try to explain it away for reasons other than the ridiculous millions, as they suddenly cheer for the extra time they’ll get to spend with family, for the three-day competition format, for the no-cut policy and shotgun starts that take variables like weather out of the fairness equation.

And let’s remember this. Those changes — not to mention the bottomless well of Saudi money — are what have the PGA Tour scared. They represent the battles fueling this fight far more than any moral outrage does. The Tour is trying to protect its own bottom line, its own business interest, its own financial future.

But in doing that, it also has golf on its side. It has history and legacy on its side. And that’s why the Rory McIlroys, the Justin Thomases, the Jon Rahms have all taken up the PGA Tour’s mantle. With hammers both hard (McIlroy) and velvet (Rahm), they’ve made it clear where they stand.

“My dad said to me a long time ago: Once you’ve made your bed, you lie in it,” McIlroy said Tuesday. “And they’ve made their bed. That’s their decision, and they have to live with that.”

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Rory McIlroy is now fan of the new tour.The Boston Globe/Boston Globe

McIlroy enjoyed every second of last week’s win at the Canadian Open, and not just because career victory No. 21 pushed him past LIV co-founder and resident PGA Tour hater Greg Norman. He just doesn’t understand why those who respect the history of the sport would so willingly give it away.

“I just think for a lot of the guys that are going to play that are younger or of similar age to me or a little younger than me, it seems like quite short-term thinking, and they’re not really looking at the big picture,” McIlroy said.

“Again, I’ve just tried to sort of see this with a wider lens from the start. That’s why I don’t understand for the guys that are a similar age to me going, because I would like to believe that my best days are still ahead of me, and I think theirs are, too. So that’s where it feels like you’re taking the easy way out.”

Rahm echoed the sentiment, taking aim at a LIV format whose changes erode the competitive essence of the game.

Phil Mickelson and Jon Rahm sign autographs after their practice round Wednesday at The Country Club.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

“To be honest, part of the format is not really appealing to me,” Rahm said. “Shotgun three days to me is not a golf tournament, no cut. It’s that simple. I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see.

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“Yeah, money is great, but when [my wife] Kelley and I — this first thing happened, we started talking about it, and we’re like, ‘Will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million? No, it will not change one bit.’

“Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. So I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

Right now. But in the future?

“I don’t think anyone can see where this thing will be in five years’ time or 10 years’ time,” McIlroy conceded. “If I had a crystal ball, I could obviously give you a better answer. Honestly, I don’t know.”

Read more of the Globe’s US Open coverage


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.