Travelers Championship competition a distraction from PGA Tour/LIV Golf drama

CROMWELL — The divisive conversation about the PGA Tour and LIV Golf that has fractured the sport’s upper echelon to the curiosity of an international sports community will only resolve itself over time.

Eventually, the longstanding tour and its bold, new rival will settle into comfortable areas in an evolving framework, though the journey through this increasingly contentious fight could take a while.

The Tour, with unmatched exposure and history, will pride itself on legacy while working to better reward and protect loyal players. LIV will continue to attempt to lure the world’s best with exorbitant appearance fees, skimming only off the top layer of coins from the Saudi-backed pot of gold it’s working with.

It’s a complicated time for golf and it will continue to be, but this controversy and all the rumors and story lines can always be cut to pieces for a brief moment or the better part of a week, like an iron shot through a stiff breeze, by the actual golf itself.

That mattered Thursday at the Travelers Championship, where Rory McIlroy, the most famous player in the field and the de facto spokesman for tour players in recent weeks, shot to the top of the round one leaderboard and stayed there, tied with J.T. Poston, with an 8-under-par 62.

“I get asked questions, I answer questions, and I move on with my life,” McIlory said. “What the other guys do doesn’t affect me. All I can do is go and try to play the best possible golf, be a good person, be a good dad, be a good husband, and that’s all I do. I try to stand up here and answer your questions truthfully and try to tell you what’s on my mind.

“Sometimes that’s to my detriment, I guess, in some ways. But I’d rather be honest and speak my mind than just stand up here and give you mundane answers that aren’t indicative of how I am actually thinking and feeling about the whole thing.”

A day earlier, McIlroy had stood behind a microphone in the same spot, just outside the clubhouse at TPC River Highlands, describing his surprise at Brooks Koepka’s departure and the “duplicitous” actions of players who talk about remaining on tour only to defect to walk the money-paved fairways of LIV, which debuted in London June 9 and makes its American debut beginning June 30 in Portland, Ore.

Those type of conversations will play out at all tour stops for a while — next week in Silvis, Ill., the week after in Nicholasville, Kent., and on and on from there. All will be interspersed with welcome distractions to the giant distraction, really, with the sort of developments that played out Thursday in Cromwell.

PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan had come and gone, his state of the tour address delivered Wednesday. Greg Norman, the 1995 Greater Hartford Open champion now leading LIV, was equally irrelevant from sunrise to sunset, as 156 players spread out over the 18 holes.

McIlroy’s bogey-free round was just about flawless. Ranked No. 2 in the world, he’s played brilliantly of late. He fires a 62 and golf fans can consider his place in golf’s past, present and future, the fact that he’s won 21 times on tour, that he’s just 33 years old — even that, damn, it’s been eight years since he won the most recent of his four major championships.

Xander Schauffele, who nearly missed his tee time and promptly went out and made all 18 greens in regulation, and Martin Laird each posted a 7-under 63 — wonderful scores even on this course, where Jim Furyk set a tour record with a 58 in 2016.

Tournament golf was played.

Even the traditionally boring quotes sound pretty good.

“Perfect receptiveness right now,” Laird said of the greens after hitting his approach on 18 to within 7 feet and finishing with a birdie.

“This is a golf course where if the wind lays down a little, scores will be low,” Webb Simpson said after a 6-under 64.

“There’s so many risk-reward holes and opportunities,” said Charles Howell III, who also carded a 64.

This was all part of the usual fun. This is what Connecticut waits for and gathers for every year, what was taken away from those fans by the pandemic in 2020. When the gates re-opened last year, only a limited crowd was allowed course access.

So to gather again, whole, and see world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, whose meteoric rise included a victory at the Masters in April, play our state’s course for the first time as a true household name Thursday afternoon was rewarding.

To see 2006 champion J.J. Henry shoot even-par 70 with his son, Connor, as his caddy — 34 years after he debuted in the tournament with his father, Ron, carrying his bag — was warming.

To see Ben James of Milford, a senior at Hamden Hall Country Day who will play at Virginia, make his PGA Tour debut on a sponsor’s exemption, was intriguing.

James is the American Golf Association’s top-ranked junior golfer in the country. Remember the name.

Jordan Spieth will always remember 2017, when his winning bunker shot shook the grounds for one of the largest crowds in history. Spieth has taken the better part of three years to remodel his game, gaining momentum after a long slump, but he knocked the ball Thursday with a disastrous 5-over 75, his latest failed attempt to make any Cromwell noise.

If you follow this tournament and follow or just enjoy the golf — the actual golf — it is all compelling, right down to the ‘Who is J.T. Poston?’ talk after he birdied 18 to tie for the lead.

There is a lot to juggle at TPC River Highlands in the state of the tournament and the journey of its players, not just in the future of a sport. Every player interviewed on Thursday had a score card to refer to, thoughts on the course and their remaining rounds.

Elsewhere, Koepka was preparing to be part of the next LIV field. Phil Mickelson, Greater Hartford Open champion in 2001 and 2002, and 2020 winner Dustin Johnson were doing the same. There is no cut in LIV Golf’s 54-hole format, tournaments where every player, even the last place finisher, gets coins from weekly purses of $25 million.

The players at TPC River Highlands will essentially be supporting one another by competing with one another as Friday afternoon’s cut looms. Only half the players will make it to the weekend and into the money, the first little piece of competitive drama in any PGA Tour event.

“There’s only one reason that the guys are going to the other side, and it’s because they have an opportunity to make more money,” McIlroy said. “Even though Scottie Scheffler has made $13 million this season and it’s only June. There’s opportunity to make a lot of money out here. But like everything always has been in golf, it has to be earned. I think we appreciate that as players, and I think the people that watch us appreciate that we all start at zero at the start of next week and we all go again.”