Just “business as usual” on the ropes for Cam Smith, Rory McIlroy on Day 1 of the Tour Championship

ATLANTA — This entire season of the PGA Tour has been one long soap opera, but two of the main protagonists provided no juicy subplots on Thursday at the Tour Championship.

After the withdrawal of Will Zalatoris changed the pairings sheet, golf fans circled the 1:45 p.m. tee time – as if ardent Tour supporter Rory McIlroy and rumored defector Cameron Smith of LIV, were suddenly about to throw themselves into East Lake in a battle. for the soul of the game.

It was the same divisive energy that fueled non-controversy earlier in the FedExCup playoffs, when Scottie Scheffler walked past Smith as he read a putt and received an incredulous look that quickly became a viral meme. . Except it wasn’t a brash display of unsportsmanlike behavior from Scheffler; it was a momentary cerebral cramp. Amazed at how exaggerated the non-issue has become, they even discussed a silly rebuttal, if only Scheffler hadn’t had a laugh at it.

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There was no hard feelings that day, and there was no coldness in the opening here either. Players may have privately complained about Smith’s position here, but McIlroy didn’t send shivers down his spine. Far from it, in fact. He walked with Smith on the fairways, praised his many good shots and chatted amiably during long waits.

“Cam and I get along really well,” McIlroy said. “Always have.”

Smith has deflected – but not denied – several reports that he has signed with LIV Golf and will rush to the rival league immediately after the Tour season ends. Smith said any definitive statement about his future as a player would come directly from him, and in a brief interview on Wednesday he reiterated that he was there, simply, to “hit good shots and make putts”.

Smith’s potential departure would be a blow to the Tour and a knockdown blow to LIV boss Greg Norman, who has mostly attracted beyond their best and misfit talent to his upstart league. Smith, of course, is neither: he’s 28, highly regarded and is coming off a stellar year. It would be a disappointing decision for golf fans who care about watching the best players – everything of the best players – compete more often.

McIlroy revealed Wednesday that he spoke with Smith two days after the Open. Smith once had an awkward encounter at his winner’s press conference in St. Andrews, when he tersely responded to a reporter’s question about his interest in LIV by saying the timing of the inquiry was rude. and that his team took care of all his problems. On that call, McIlroy said he wanted to lay out the framework for what Smith’s next decade on the tour might look like — the star showcase, the beefed-up legacy events, the riches. The message was clear: this is what you could give up.

“I just don’t want people to hear information from one side and not the other,” McIlroy explained.

It doesn’t seem like his speech changed Smith’s mind — and for McIlroy, that’s fine.

Over the past few months, he has been very clear about his view of defectors.

At the Memorial, McIlroy said he tried to put himself in the shoes of other players and acknowledged it was a personal choice.

At the Canadian Open, he said he understood why some chose to leave – although he believed, from his own experience, that making decisions based solely on money often didn’t end well.

Rory hits back after ‘worst possible start’

Rory fires back after the

As the playoffs opened, he said he didn’t blame anyone – but some of the lingering resentment came from those who left and also wanted to return to the Tour to enjoy some of the benefits. of membership.

And on Thursday at the Tour Championship, well, McIlroy reiterated his position again, when asked if it was a different vibe when paired with Smith.

“It was business as usual,” he said. “I keep saying that no matter what decisions or choices anyone makes, that doesn’t make them a bad person. Does that put me at odds with them? Of course it is. But I disagree with a lot of people I like and love.

Yet Smith’s presence here leaves open the extremely awkward scenario that he could win the Tour’s top two prizes this season – The Players Championship and FedExCup – and then head to his main rival, with whom the Tour is now battling in front of the court.

Smith is not out of the race yet. With the start staggered at the Tour Championship, Smith and McIlroy entered the event six shots behind Scheffler and shot a matching 67, although they arrived at those scores quite differently.

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It was a disastrous start to the Tour Championship for Rory McIlroy, who hit his first tee shot out of bounds.

Uncommitted on his opening tee shot, McIlroy attempted to guide a cut driver into a downpour but ended up running past him on the left, over the out of bounds fence. He made a triple bogey, then added a bogey on the next hole, but he didn’t blow himself up. On a wild day in which he recorded just four pars, he came home on 31 and remained tied for sixth – although he was now eight shots behind Scheffler with 54 remaining holes.

Smith’s lathe was more of a tedious job. After skipping last week’s event to nurse a lingering hip injury (taking him from third to sixth in the points standings), Smith’s problem erupted again Thursday on the spongy, mushy fairways by the rain. Unable to drive into his front hip, Smith pushed several shots weakly to the right and was significantly overtaken by McIlroy, at times from 50 yards.

“This is probably the first time in a long time that I’ve felt like this has affected my golf,” Smith said.

Sometimes he trailed behind the rest of the group and walked with his driver for support. He kept a Hyperice therapy gun attached to his golf bag as a rangefinder. But with the short field, he has plenty of time to meet his coach for post-round treatment.

“I don’t feel too bad,” Smith said. “Probably just boring, to be honest. It’s not like my leg is going to fall off. It’s not like it hurt my head. It’s just boring, so I tried to keep the yield pretty low and keep it a bit for the rest of the week.

In the first round, at least, he hobbled around East Lake, mostly undisturbed by fans who didn’t know or care that he might soon be playing his regular-season golf elsewhere. “It’s a 100 mil walk ahead!” a fan behind 18 shouted at Smith, but the comment didn’t land. There is pain to go through, top players to chase down, a tournament to win. The soap opera can resume in a few days.

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