BROOKLINE, Mass. — Two worlds of competitive golf collide this week at the U.S. Open.
One world seeks to blow up the status quo, posing the largest threat to the PGA Tour in its 54-year history. It is spearheaded by six-time major winner and fan favorite Phil Mickelson, who along with former No. 1 Dustin Johnson took $150 million or more to leave the sport’s pre-eminent tour and play in the new Saudi-backed LIV Golf series.
The other world is inhabited by the likes of Ben Silverman and Davis Shore.
They are among the young, the journeymen, the amateurs and the dreamers who made it through qualifying to earn spots in the 156-player field at The Country Club outside of Boston. Starting Thursday, they will play alongside the millionaire disrupters in America’s open golf tournament — an event that, in theory at least, any pro or amateur with a handicap of 1.4 or less is eligible to win.
“For anyone at our level, it’s another opportunity,” said Shore, a 23-year-old from Tennessee who plays on minor league tours in Canada and Latin America and has career earnings of around $15,000. “It’s a chance to play against the best in the world. And that’s what you want. It’s also a good opportunity to hopefully cash a big check. We don’t get that opportunity very much playing at this level.”
Theirs is a level of puddle-jumper flights to far-flung outposts, cheap rent-a-cars, fast-food drive-throughs and bunking with roommates. Players make cuts, then use that money to pay to travel to the next week's tournament.
Shore, who went through 54 holes of qualifying this spring to make his second straight U.S. Open, spoke to The Associated Press earlier this month after the first round of the Royal Beach Victoria Open on the PGA Tour Canada. He would finish tied for 13th. He earned $3,325. By qualifying for the U.S. Open, he received a $10,000 travel stipend for the trip to Brookline.
Without those funds, he said, “I don't know how I would make it work."
Neither he nor Silverman profess to be paying much attention to the LIV Tour, which has been the talk of The Country Club this week and which awarded a record-setting $4.75 million to the winner of its inaugural event, Charl Schwartzel, last weekend. The winner at this week's national championship — which, like the other three majors, is closely connected to but not run by the PGA Tour — will make in the neighborhood of $2.25 million.
There is a lively and divisive debate about what message the breakaway players are sending by cashing checks from LIV Golf. The league is bankrolled by the Saudis, and the league's front man, former No. 1 Greg Norman, touts the series as a “force for good” in golf. But to many, this is nothing more than the kingdom's attempt to use sports to scrub its much-criticized human rights record.
From a pure golf standpoint, this league also is taking the rap for bucking a tradition that has long been baked into the sport's DNA: Players earn their money based on how they perform, week to week, in any given tournament. (The sponsorship dollars that flow from that are separate, but are also mostly available to the players who demonstrate consistent success.)
LIV guarantees money to all 48 players in the field before they hit a shot. Mickelson received a reported $200 million simply for moving over to play in the series; Johnson received a reported $150 million. Last weekend's last-place finisher made $120,000, or nearly 10 times what Shore has banked in his 15 months as a pro.
The “win-to-earn” format is a concept that has long separated golf and tennis (and bowling and a few other sports) from the worlds of pro football and basketball and soccer, where the checks clear no matter how the teams — or the players on them — fare.
The up-and-comers such as Shore and Silverman have bought into the system as it is, and are hoping to earn or regain a foothold there.
That doesn't mean they're against the other model.
“You'd see guys playing amazing golf,” Silverman said of the idea that players would walk into tournaments with some sort of guaranteed payday. “And it would probably be more exciting for the fans because we wouldn’t be worried about making money.”
That mindset, Silverman said, has informed his new approach to life on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Now 34, the Ontario native began his pro career in 2013 with the help of backers who funded him. Thanks to a strong 2017 on the Korn Ferry that earned him a promotion to the PGA Tour, he has been able to pay them back with part of his $1.5 million in earnings, most won between 2017 and 2019. That money has also given him a cushion as he weathers tougher times, which now find him looking for a path back to the big show.
Working with famed golf psychologist Bob Rotella, Silverman says he has redefined his mission. His goal at every tournament is not simply to make the cut and cash a check.
“I've always played sports because I wanted to win,” Silverman said. “It never had anything to do with money. That's the mindset I want to get back into."
Shore takes a similar approach.
“You’re focused on winning, or finishing in the top two or three, so you can get to the next level where you can actually make money," he said.
Shore was one of the country's top junior golfers coming up through high school. Alabama won the recruiting battle, but a series of hip and back injuries hampered him throughout college. He turned pro in 2021, and his early days as a professional have been a winding road through Peru, Ecuador, Chile and Mexico, with occasional stops in Canada to stay eligible on the minor league tour in that country, as well.
He's his own travel agent and often carries his own bag when he plays. After making it through local qualifying, he earned one of 13 spots out of the sectional qualifier near Dallas to make it to the U.S. Open for the second straight year.
He sees some of the players who were invited to the LIV tour — players with resumes that are barely more accomplished than his — and credits it to them being at the right place at the right time.
Though the “right place” in golf's future is now up for debate, certainly, this week, that place is The Country Club.
“I’m not putting all my eggs in one basket for one tournament,” Silverman said. “But this is my first major championship. It's an opportunity to play in a tournament I haven’t played before. All the top players in the world are going to be there, and I'm super-excited for it.”
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