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Rory McIlroy’s quest for No 5 a sideshow as the R&A opens its doors to Saudi Arabia

ROYAL LIVERPOOL — The cameo was one of crushing innocence, three young boys scampering beside a white fence trying to keep pace with Rory McIlroy, who was on the other side on his way to the putting green. They cared not for the rules that forbid running on the golf course, nor for the dead hand of officialdom that would stop them in their tracks. Common sense prevailed and they were allowed through the ropes to the clubhouse lawn, where their hero threaded balls between tee pegs en route to the hole.

The clubhouse has stood on this spot since 1895 and was doubtless witness to like scenes when JH Taylor, Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones were the champion golfers around this idyllic stretch of coastline. McIlroy, the last to win here nine years ago, is the heir to that legacy, the reference point connecting the present with the distant past.

Much has altered in the 163 years since the inaugural Open Championship, yet the character of the game has remained largely unchanged, a space where history, tradition and civility are respected and preserved. However, you wonder if this might not be the tournament that ends the old era and spawns the next, an epoch of rampant commercialism and geopolitical fist-pumping – golf but louder, as the start-up LIV Golf league would have it.

The schism forced upon golf by the Saudi incursion brought the game to the point of collapse, golfers who were once allies ranged against each other in bitter dispute. For a full 12 months the old order and the Saudi aggressors circled each other, making nervous bystanders of the grand, old bodies regulating the game. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club and the United States Golf Association stayed vaguely neutral, hoping the whole thing would somehow go away. It has, but not in the way any imagined.

The capitulation of the PGA Tour and partner DP World Tour has forced upon the establishment a new reality, one that was recognised by the R&A chairman Martin Slumbers in his pre-Open address. The oldest golfing organisation on earth, custodians of the game since 1754, are now willing recipients of Saudi largesse, actively encouraging an association.

The arrival of His Excellency Yasir Al-Rumayyan, governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, at Royal Liverpool is the red-carpet moment that legitimises the Saudi regime’s place in golf’s new order. It is all Al-Rumayyan ever wanted when forced into an aggressive posture with the launch of LIV Golf 13 months ago. And Slumber’s sanction was Mozart in his ears.

“The world of sport has changed dramatically in the last 12 months, and it is not feasible for the R&A or golf to just ignore what is a societal change on a global basis. We will be considering within all the parameters that we look at all the options that we have,” Slumbers said in answer to a question about the desirability of PIF investment in the Open Championship.

In a sense, the depositing of Saudi money in R&A coffers would be a continuation of the ongoing commercialisation of a game that has had to adapt to trends in the same way other sports have done. The difference is, golf prefers to talk about growing the game not the balance sheet, and other sports referenced by Slumbers, for example Formula One and football, did not risk oblivion by weaponising morality to keep the Saudis out.

If the fabric of golf and its power structures are changed forever, embers of its old charm still glowed in the imagination of kids lining up for autographs, and in the joy taken by enthusiasts watching golf balls struck by the world’s best. Royal Liverpool looked a picture as the players completed their final practice rounds for the 151st Open, the sun dancing on the incoming tide and applause rippling across the fairways.

Each summer sport has its own character and appeal. Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix, Test cricket speak in their own unique ways to appreciative crowds. The golfing tribe is as steeped in knowledge and love of the game as any.

McIlroy, playing with European heavyweights Tommy Fleetwood, Tyrrell Hatton and Viktor Hovland, was at the centre of this bucolic setting, precisely the scene into which the Saudi regime wishes to insert itself. A short cut, if you like, to acceptance and likeability. A handshake with any of the above would be a win for Al-Rumayyan, who is a guest of an R&A sponsor, resonating in Riyadh as well as the boardroom of golf’s new alliance.

As to who might win the tournament, you could make a case for any of the McIlroy group picking apart the back nine in the sunshine, plus a handful of others. Or we might be toasting an outsider on Sunday, just as we did at the US Open, where Wyndham Clark triumphed in his seventh major, comfortably beating his previous best of 75th. John Daly anyone?

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