LONDON (Reuters) -Stormy weather provided a fitting backdrop for the opening round of the BMW PGA Championship at Wentworth on Thursday where players on both sides of golf’s bitter power struggle were in action on the soggy fairways.
The flagship tournament of the DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) has been overshadowed by the presence of 17 golfers who have signed up for the divisive LIV Tour — the Saudi-backed series rocking golf’s status quo.
Northern Ireland’s four-times major champion Rory McIlroy, one of the favourites for the title, has pulled no punches in criticising his former Ryder Cup colleagues who have jumped ship for the LIV Tour riches.
He is joined in a strong field by the likes of U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick, 2021 Wentworth winner Billy Horschel and Spain’s former U.S. Open winner John Rahm, all of whom have had nothing to do with the LIV Tour.
England’s Tommy Fleetwood, another player to shun the breakaway tour, topped the leaderboard with a superb eight-under 64, finishing with four successive birdies.
He was joined by compatriot Andy Sullivan and Norwegian Viktor Hovland who made it a three-way tie for the lead when he made a eagle on the par-five 18th.
Another Englishman, Matthew Jordan, was a shot back in fourth after six birdies on the back nine propelled him to a seven-under 65.
Former British Open champion Shane Lowry, who described the presence of LIV golfers as “disruptive”, carded a 66 and held a share of fifth place.
Of the LIV Tour contingent, Austria’s Bernd Wiesberger and Mexican Abraham Ancer were the highest-placed on four-under before play was suspended early and the second round on Friday called off following the death of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth.
McIlroy had said it would be “hard to stomach” playing alongside the likes of former Ryder Cup team mates Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Sergio Garcia at Wentworth and he re-stated his opposition on Wednesday.
Former Europe Ryder Cup captain Paul McGinley, a DP World Tour board member, told Sky Sports that those signed up for the LIV Tour should not be playing at Wentworth.
“They’ve decided to leave the collective that is the European Tour which is a little bit like a trade union where everybody’s in together and then the value of that collective is used to lever and get commercial opportunities,” he said on Thursday.
“Should you leave that collective that’s fine, you go on a different path, but you then shouldn’t be allowed to come back and also play as part of a collective that you left and are actually hurting economically.”
The LIV Tour, which was launched at the first event near London in June, boasts an eye-popping $255 million in prize-money — dwarfing what is available on the DP World Tour.
Unlike the powerful PGA Tour, which has suspended players such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson for jumping ship, the DP World Tour has not followed suit with a court case next year likely to decide whether they can play in both.
McIlroy was at least spared any awkwardness as he was paired for his first round with Fitzpatrick and Horschel in front of large galleries hiding under umbrellas from the heavy showers.
There was no disguising the tension in the air as the LIV Tour players began their rounds, but McIlroy let his golf do the talking as he opened with a four-under 68.
“I played okay, the rain was on and off and that made it tricky,” McIlroy said. “But it’s so soft, it’s target practice out there. Four under was fairly pedestrian.”
(Reporting by Martyn Herman; additional reporting by Dhruv Munjal, Editing by Ken Ferris, Pritha Sarkar and Ed Osmond)