The 150th British Open teed off on the Old Course in St Andrews on Thursday with organisers keen for the focus to remain on a historic championship despite the ongoing fallout caused by the breakaway LIV Golf series.
A clutch of players who joined the Saudi-backed tour are taking part in this week’s Open after organisers the R&A opted not to ban the rebels, in contrast to moves made by the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour.
Former Open champion Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Sergio Garcia are among the LIV series members who are in St Andrews, and a victory for one of them this weekend might not do much to ease tensions in the sport.
“Whoever wins on Sunday is going to have their name carved in history, and I’ll welcome them onto the 18th green,” insisted Martin Slumbers, chief executive of the R&A.
“This is a golf tournament. The Open is about having the best players in the world playing, and I want to see who shoots the lowest score come Sunday night.”
Yet Slumbers also attacked the Saudi-backed series, which offers prize money of $25 million for each 54-hole event, compared to a $14 million prize pot for this week’s Open.
The LIV model, he said, “is not in the best long-term interests of the sport as a whole and is entirely driven by money”.
“It undermines the merit-based culture and the spirit of open competition that makes golf so special,” he added.
Rory McIlroy is among the players who have voiced opposition to the new series and the Northern Irishman would prefer not to see one of the rebels triumph in St Andrews.
“Selfishly, for me, yes, I think it would be better for the game,” he said.
Whether affiliated to the new series or not, there is a long list of contenders looking to succeed Collin Morikawa, winner last year at Royal St George’s.
McIlroy, who won the 2014 Open at Hoylake, appears best-placed among the European candidates during a season in which he has also come second in the Masters and fifth at the US Open, although US Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick of England may disagree.
A long list of American contenders is led by Scottie Scheffler, the Masters champion and world number one, yet he insists he feels no extra pressure despite his status.
“Being the home of golf and the Open Championship definitely amplifies things a bit, but that’s across the board,” the 26-year-old said on Wednesday.
“I don’t think it matters if I’m number one in the world or number 50 in the world, I want to win this tournament as bad or more than anybody out here.”
Scheffler tees off in a group with Joaquin Niemann and Tyrrell Hatton.
McIlroy, meanwhile, plays with Morikawa and Xander Schauffele, the Olympic champion who won last week’s Scottish Open.
The Open is expecting record attendances for the week of 290,000, meaning galleries will be packed for the first championship since the end of pandemic-related restrictions.
The course is hosting the championship for the 30th time, the first since Zach Johnson won here in 2015 after foul weather delayed the finish until the Monday.
There seems little prospect of the weather causing such havoc this time, with conditions expected to be largely fine, even if winds have picked up over the last two days and rain seemed to appear from nowhere on Wednesday.
Stiff breezes may put paid to any prospect of a record low score being posted, with the current best round at a major Branden Grace’s 62 at Birkdale in 2017.
“Even with the advancements in technology, this golf course still stands the test of time. It’s still very difficult, and it’s obviously weather dependent,” said Tiger Woods, twice an Open champion at St Andrews.
The 46-year-old, who has been recovering from severe leg injuries suffered in a car crash last year and missed the US Open, tees off at 2:59 pm (1359 GMT) alongside Fitzpatrick and Max Homa.
Scotland’s Paul Lawrie, Open champion at Carnoustie in 1999, had the honour of playing the first tee shot of the championship in calm but cool weather at 6:35 am on Thursday morning.