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Dustin Johnson, Carlos Ortiz share lead at LIV event in Oregon

Dustin Johnson hits his tee shot on the seventh hole.Steve Dykes/Getty

The outcry that marked the start of the Saudi Arabia-funded LIV Golf series’ first American stop quieted a bit on Friday, putting the focus on the play at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club.

Modest crowds and mild temperatures in the mid-70s greeted the players on the upstart series — bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — which is trying to shake up the PGA Tour. But there has been widespread criticism due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses.

Dustin Johnson, the 2020 Masters winner, shared the lead with Carlos Ortiz of Mexico going into Saturday’s final round of the 54-hole tournament. Johnson shot a 4-under-par 68 to reach 8 under.

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“I’m really happy with the way I’m swinging it,” Johnson said. “Tomorrow, I just need to go and do the same thing, just drive in the fairway. I feel like I’m swinging my irons really good, so if I can get in the fairway I’m going to get a lot of good looks. And obviously I’m rolling it nice, too.”

Ortiz birdied the final hole for a 69 to pull even with Johnson.

“I felt like I played really solid,” Ortiz said. “I put myself in a good position.”

A lone protestor was outside the gate at the club some 20 miles west of Portland, Ore., holding a sign that simply said “Fallon Smart 2000-2016.”

Smart was 15 when she was killed by a hit-and-run driver in Portland. A Saudi national attending school in Oregon was charged in her death, but removed a monitoring device before the start of his trial and vanished. US officials believe the Saudi government helped spirit him away.

The mood inside Pumpkin Ridge was light, with jugglers and other entertainment, interactive fan activities and food carts offering an array of cuisines. Organizers did not announce attendance figures but said the final round was sold out.

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Branden Grace was two shots behind the leaders at 6 under after a 69. Justin Harding was 5 under after a 67, the best score of the day among the 48 players.

Johnson had the biggest galleries, along with Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson, and Bryson DeChambeau, all majors winners who have signed on to the new venture fronted by CEO Greg Norman.

The PGA Tour has responded to LIV Golf’s challenge by suspending every active member who competed in the first LIV event. Those who played in Oregon were suspended unless they resigned their tour memberships.

J.T. Poston opens up four-shot lead at John Deere

J.T. Poston took a four-stroke lead into the weekend in the PGA Tour’s John Deere Classic, following an opening 9-under-par 62 with a 65 at TPC Deere Run in Silvis, Ill.

Coming off a second-place tie last week in Connecticut after also opening with a 62, Poston got to 15 under with a birdie on the par-4 13th and parred the final six holes in the afternoon round.

“I feel great,” Poston said. “My last few rounds out here have been great going back into last week, so just going to try and keep riding that momentum and doing what I’m doing. Don’t change anything and just kind of take the good looks when they come. And when I don’t have a good number or don’t feel good over it, just be smart about it.”

Poston was a stroke off the tournament 36-hole record set by Steve Stricker in his 2010 victory.

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Denny McCarthy was second at 11 under after a 65, also playing in the afternoon after rain delayed play in the morning.

Christopher Gotterup, the former Rutgers player in the field on a sponsor exemption, had a 67 to match Matthias Schwab (65), Emiliano Grillo (64), and Chris Naegel (66) at 10 under.

“It was an interesting day,” Gotterup said. “Definitely a bit of an up-and-down day compared to yesterday, where I was kind of more on cruise control.”

Last week in the Travelers Championship, Poston followed the opening 62 with rounds of 70, 67, and 64 to finish two strokes behind Xander Schauffele.

“Last week, the one thing I think I learned after playing well Thursday was to try and keep the pedal down,” Poston said. “I think this golf course may yield a few more birdies than last week, but at the same time, you got to go out there and hit some golf shots to stay aggressive. I was able to do that, which is nice.”

Iowa native Zach Johnson, the 2012 winner, was 4 under after opening 69-69 in his 20th consecutive start in the event.

“Today was much more manageable and gettable,” Johnson said. “Yesterday, I putted better probably as a whole.”

Defending champion Lucas Glover missed the cut by a stroke, shooting 74-66.

Keith Pelley fires back at punished players

In an escalating war of words, European tour CEO Keith Pelley fired back at 16 players who have threatened legal action if they remain punished for ignoring tour regulations by playing in the Saudi-funded LIV golf events.

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The Daily Telegraph obtained a copy of the letter to the DP World Tour — the commercial name of the European tour — in which players demanded their fines be rescinded and they be allowed to play in the Scottish Open next week.

The European tour fined players who competed in the inaugural LIV Golf event 100,000 pounds. The event was outside London, the same week as a European tour event in Sweden, and players did not have releases required under tour regulations.

It was rare for a tour executive to go public with his criticism. Pelley said the letter contained “too many inaccuracies that it cannot remain unchallenged.”

Pelley said players knew before choosing to sign up for the rebel league there would be consequences and many of them accepted that. He said it wasn’t credible for players to now be surprised by the punishment.

“The letter claims that these players ‘care deeply’ for the DP World Tour,” Pelley said in his statement. “An analysis of the past participation statistics on our tour in recent years of several of the leading players named suggests otherwise.”

He said one player, whom Pelley did not name, has played only six Rolex Series events in the last five years. Those are designated as elite events on the European tour with biggest funds and points.

“I wish many of them had been as keen to play on our tour then as they seem to be now, based on the fact they have either resigned their membership of the PGA Tour or, if they are still in membership, have been suspended indefinitely,” he said.

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The Scottish Open is the first time a tournament is co-sanctioned by the PGA Tour and European tour, offering an $8 million purse with the 156-man field divided evenly among both tours. The Barbasol Championship next week in Kentucky allows for 50 European tour players.

The Telegraph said the 16 players who signed the letter included Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, and Sergio Garcia.

It cited the letter as saying, “Instead of spending our time, energy, financial resources, and focus on appeals, injunctions, and lawsuits, we would implore you, the custodians of the DP World Tour, to reconsider your recent penalties and sanctions, and instead focus our energies on forging a path forward that is better for the DP World Tour members and the game of golf.”

The letter also criticized a 13-year joint venture with the PGA Tour that was announced this week, which allows for the leading 10 European tour players to get PGA Tour cards. It accused Europe of being willing to be “second fiddle” to the US tour.

Jorge Campillo ahead by one stroke in Ireland

Spain’s Jorge Campillo was the pace setter halfway through the Irish Open while home favorite Shane Lowry staged a grandstand finish to make the cut at Mount Juliet in Thomastown.

Campillo added a 4-under-par 68 to his opening bogey-free 65 for a halfway total of 11 under par, one shot ahead of Poland’s Adrian Meronk (67) and Paraguay’s Fabrizio Zanotti (69).

Lowry looked set for an early exit until he birdied his last four holes for a second round of 70. The 2019 British Open champion rounded off a brilliant fightback by holing from 20 feet on the 18th to the delight of the large crowds.

At 3 under, Lowry is eight shots off the pace as he looks to win the event for a second time. He famously lifted the title as an amateur in 2009.

There was a seven-way tie for fourth, including Lowry’s playing partner and compatriot, Seamus Power. Power birdied the last in a second consecutive 68 to leave him 8 under par, three behind leader Campillo.

Three-time major winner Padraig Harrington joined Lowry in making the cut on 3 under thanks to a brilliant finish. The new US Senior Open champion followed a double bogey on the seventh — his 16th hole — with birdies on the eighth and ninth.