Rory McIlroy of Northern Ireland watches his tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Canadian Open in Toronto on Thursday, June 9, 2022. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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By DOUG FERGUSON AP Golf Writer

The U.S. Open returns to its roots at The Country Club, a location steeped in history.

It is one of the five founding clubs of the U.S. Golf Association. Its first U.S. Open in 1913 is what first put golf on the front pages of American newspapers when 20-year-old amateur Francis Ouimet took down a pair of British titans.

Beyond the ropes, it’s worth nothing the Boston area was the birthplace of the Revolutionary War, only fitting for these times.

That’s what it feels like golf is going through at the moment.

More than a dozen PGA Tour players, a few big names that include a trio of U.S. Open champions, are defecting to a Saudi-funded rival league and the PGA Tour is telling them they are no longer welcome. The battle lines are unlike anything this genteel game has experienced in its 162-year history.

And it’s enough to steal some of the attention away from the U.S. Open, the second-oldest championship known as the toughest test in golf.

“It’s a weird time in professional golf,” Rory McIlroy said. “And I said it a couple weeks ago, we’re just going to see how this season plays out.”

The U.S. Open is in Brookline, Massachusetts, for the fourth time on June 16-19, and it already features a few subplots that could be considered surprising.

Tiger Woods will be sitting this one out.

After making the cut in the Masters and the PGA Championship, Woods decided his right leg that was battered from a February 2021 car crash needs more time to heal and strengthen. He wants to be ready for the British Open next month at St. Andrews.

Phil Mickelson will be playing a major for the first time this year.

Lefty was recovering from a foot-in-mouth injury from published comments about the Saudi league that managed to offend both sides. He said he wasn’t ready to play the Masters or the PGA Championship, making his return at the LIV Golf Invitational outside London.

The USGA takes the name of its championship —“Open” — seriously enough to honor any player who earned his way into the field.

“Should a player who had earned his way into the 2022 U.S. Open, via our published field criteria, be pulled out of the field as a result of his decision to play in another event? And we ultimately decided that they should not,” the USGA said in a statement.

Fourteen players who qualified for the U.S. Open were in the first LIV Golf event, a group that includes past champions Dustin Johnson and Martin Kaymer. Another U.S. Open champion, Bryson DeChambeau, joined the Saudi league on Friday.

Mickelson, most famously, never has won the U.S. Open. Imagine if he were to finally win the major that has haunted him throughout his career, those record six runner-up finishes keeping him from the career Grand Slam.

“I don’t know how others will receive it but I would be quite favorable with it,” Mickelson said.

How others would perceive it is to be determined. For years among the most popular figures in golf, Mickelson has been viewed as the chief recruiter for Greg Norman and his LIV Golf series that has paid enormous sums just for players to sign up.

Mickelson would know from experience how passionate a Boston crowd can be.

He is among three players in the U.S. Open — Sergio Garcia and Jim Furyk are the others — who were part of the Ryder Cup in 1999 known as the “Battle at Brookline.” The Americans rallied from a 10-6 deficit before a crowd that gave Europe an earful. Colin Montgomerie was called either “Mrs. Doubtfire” or “Tuna” because of his vague resemblance to former New England Patriots coach Bill Parcells.

It will be Mickelson’s first time playing on American soil since Jan. 28 when he missed the cut at Torrey Pines, and the reception could be far different from 2007 when he won the Deutsche Bank Championship at the TPC Boston.

“Northeast fans are passionate and vocal,” Justin Thomas said. “Stuff you wouldn’t hear at Memphis or Greensboro, you’re going to hear it in Boston. I remember playing with Tiger at Shinnecock and people were yelling at him about his yacht.”

As for that pursuit of the career slam, Mickelson has had seven cracks at the U.S. Open since he picked up the third leg at Muirfield in the 2013 British Open. He has yet to finish among the top 25 in any of them, and turning 52 on the day of the opening round isn’t making it any easier.

Golf has been moving toward youth for some time now, and the recent majors are an example. The last four major champions are in their 20s, dating to defending U.S. Open champion Jon Rahm, who was 26 when he won at Torrey Pines last year.

Eight of the top 10 players in the world ranking are under 30, with the exceptions 30-year-old Patrick Cantlay (No. 3) and 33-year-old McIlroy (No. 7).

Young and old, major champions and amateur qualifiers, all face a test that is expected to be a traditional U.S. Open with thick, dense rough, narrow fairways, firm greens and no shortage of aggravation.

“A war of attrition,” McIlroy said.

He won his U.S. Open on a rain-softened course at Congressional, setting the 72-hole scoring record at 268 for an eight-shot victory. He has missed four U.S. Open cuts since then, but has three straight finishes in the top 10.

“I feel I’ve become better over the years,” McIlroy said of the U.S. Open grind. “It was something I hated earlier on in my career. My first real U.S. Open was Pebble Beach (2010) and I missed the cut by miles. The U.S. Open more times than not doesn’t let you be creative because it doesn’t give you a chance.”

The last U.S. Open at Brookline was in 1988, won by Curtis Strange. Only two players from the top 20 in the world (Billy Horschel and Johnson) were even born then. But if they don’t know The Country Club, most are plenty familiar with the test that awaits.

“A U.S. Open golf course not only tests you physically but mentally,” said Furyk, who will be playing it for the 26th time and won in 2003. “It’s real easy to break in that event.”

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The Associated Press

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