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As the U.S. Open begins, the golf tournament is caught up in turmoil

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

The next big tournament in men's golf, the U.S. Open, begins today outside of Boston. And it is filled with turmoil. It comes on the heels of last week's debut of the controversial LIV series. That's the breakaway tour funded by the Saudi Arabian government that's lured away some of the game's biggest stars. It has divided men's professional golf. And now players from both sides of that divide have come together for the open. NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman is here. Tom, doesn't seem like there's been much pre-tournament talk about the U.S. Open's punishing golf course or who's going to win. Has the LIV controversy really swallowed this major tournament?

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Seems so, A. At least one of the top golfers, two-time U.S. Open winner Brooks Koepka, lamented the black cloud hovering over the event. But he blamed the media for creating that black cloud. Make no mistake, though, the Saudi LIV series and the PGA Tour players who joined it and then were suspended by the tour last week for joining, that's created this. It's real. And it has driven a wedge. It's important to note, though, the PGA Tour doesn't run the U.S. Open; the U.S. Golf Association - the USGA - does. And it decided to let LIV players compete at this open.

MARTINEZ: All right. Now, who's on either side of that divide?

GOLDMAN: Well, you've got outspoken PGA Tour loyalists like Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jon Rahm. They talked about the nearly century-old PGA Tour's legacy and sneer at how the LIV players chased the huge and guaranteed Saudi money. Then you've got the LIV players, who insist it's their right to play where they want and that LIV is good for golf.

MARTINEZ: And then you add to it a big, thick layer of politics fueling all this.

GOLDMAN: Oh, yeah, the ongoing debate over the Saudis involvement. Critics accuse the LIV players of taking blood money due to the Saudi's abysmal human rights record. Families of 9/11 victims have said the players should be ashamed of working with a government that was deeply involved in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Now, defenders of LIV players say it's hypocritical to blame golfers but stay silent about many other public figures and entities that behave in a less than ethical way. So it's going to be interesting to see what happens at this tournament. Will this schism cause confrontations in a very genteel sport? At the very least, everyone, golfer and fan, knows who the LIV players are. They'll be keeping track of how each side does and rooting accordingly.

MARTINEZ: Tom, do you ever remember a sports split like this in the past?

GOLDMAN: Well, you know, A, there's been talk about pro-basketball and how the ABA challenged the NBA back in the '60s and '70s. Ultimately, that led to a merger of the two. The National Hockey League also has had to fend off challenges from rival leagues. Most recently in the 1990s in Indy car racing, you had a split that led to drivers leaving one league for another. And that caused a lot of economic damage. And the aftereffects, reportedly, are still felt today. What will be golf's fate, ultimately - probably won't be resolved soon. An indication, perhaps - the head of the USGA said this week he could foresee a time when LIV players are banned from the U.S. Open. But he didn't say when that might be.

MARTINEZ: Right. Before we let you go, I want to take one quick turn to the NBA Finals tonight. Game 6, the Golden State Warriors one win away from another title. The game, though, is in Boston. And the Celtics are going to try and hope to stay alive at home. What do you think might be up for tonight?

GOLDMAN: Oh, it's a tough one, A. Boston's been resilient this postseason. The Celtics have won several elimination games. But they've lost two straight to Golden State. So they got to figure out something different. The Warriors have won with the amazing guard, Steph Curry, being amazing. And they've won when Curry was less than amazing. He's the greatest shooter ever. But in Game 5, he didn't hit a single three-point shot, first time that's happened since 2018. The fact that it happened and the Warriors still one, that's got to worry Boston, as should a widespread belief that Curry is going to bounce back in a big way tonight.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman. Tom, thanks.

GOLDMAN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SEBASTIAN DAVIDSON AND MELOSENSE'S "LEAVE U HERE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.
Tom Goldman is NPR's sports correspondent. His reports can be heard throughout NPR's news programming, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered, and on NPR.org.