Whether it’s the team concept or a decision to allow its golfers to play in shorts, the breakaway Saudi-backed series so far sees itself as the anti-PGA Tour.
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BOLTON, Mass. — The LIV Golf event outside Boston was minutes from beginning on Friday, and Greg Norman, the frontman for the insurgent Saudi-backed circuit, needed a new, showy way to make an entrance in the rancorous battle for the future of men’s golf.
How about jumping from an airplane and parachuting onto the first tee? Surely, Norman’s nemesis, PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, had never done that?
So it was that the hundreds of fans crowded around the first tee lifted their eyes to the sky to watch as Norman, who was harnessed to a retired military parachutist, dropped across the backdrop of a clear blue sky until he touched down in front of the tee.
Separated from his escort, Norman bolted upright and raised both fists triumphantly. As he marched toward the tee, a fan yelled: “Greg, the PGA Tour is done. You did it, baby!”
Looking a bit stunned, if delighted, Norman turned in the direction of the voice. He pointed a finger and flashed the widest of smiles.
The scene could have been a metaphor for the most turbulent season in modern professional golf history: When LIV Golf suddenly appeared on the horizon this spring, the risk was manifest as the circuit searched for a welcoming place to drop into an occasionally inhospitable sport. In a surprise, LIV Golf has not only landed on its feet, it is defiantly celebrating.
Despite the volume of one fan’s shout, the PGA Tour is far from done or even from losing the clash with its rival. Last week, it began a muscular counterattack. But as the fourth LIV Golf event concluded at the International Golf Club on Sunday, the evidence was mounting that the rebel tour was not retreating either. In fact, it continues to find new ways to be noticed.
A new series. The debut of the new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Many of the biggest names in golf, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away from LIV Golf. But several top players and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson and Cameron Smith, have joined.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded? The PGA Tour suspended several members among the LIV Golf players after it denied them releases to participate in other events. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior. Meanwhile, the rival tours have engaged in a winding legal battle.
Consider the great dump-the-trousers crusade that unfolded here in Saturday’s second round. In its unceasing effort to be the anti-PGA Tour, which includes not having large tournament crowds or a broadcast TV contract, the LIV Golf leaders decided Saturday to allow players to wear shorts.
The PGA Tour does not allow its members to show legs in competition. The LIV Golf decision moved players on the circuit to say they felt freer, an odd choice of words for a group guaranteed at least $120,000 (with expenses paid) for their appearance at the tournament.
“This is a long time coming in the game of golf; I think it just takes a disrupter like LIV to get things done,” Phil Mickelson said of wearing shorts.
There was only one snag in the dress code golfing revolution that LIV Golf was hoping to ignite: The majority of the golfers kept their pants on. Maybe these guys like golf tradition more than anyone suspected.
I have now spent six days (two tournaments) inside the LIV Golf bubble since late July, and there are certain evident, noteworthy truths. One is that the rival circuit is clearly attracting a younger, more boisterous crowd than the typical PGA Tour gallery, portions of which can be reserved and sometimes removed, i.e., watching from an air-conditioned corporate box. LIV Golf’s chief motto is “Golf, but louder,” and with a recurring thunderous soundtrack of Beastie Boys, Twisted Sister and AC/DC, the circuit is living (no pun intended) up to its billing.
Asked about the thumping music that can be heard on all 18 holes, Sergio García quipped, “I’m trying not to dance too much.”
Cameron Smith, who is ranked second in the men’s worldwide rankings and who was the breakaway tour’s splashy new acquisition last week, refuted the suggestion that the music is a diversion or a gimmick. “To me,” Smith said, “it feels like the course has a bit of heartbeat.”
The LIV Golf leadership is also convinced that the key to the tour’s success is its team concept, which is new to golf. The goal is to replicate the success of the Formula 1 team model. But the LIV Golf teams had a clunky rollout earlier this year when team members kept changing, which further confused potential fans who already could not identify or remember the 12 team names, let alone their four-man rosters.
As an example, I stopped 10 fans on the golf course Sunday and asked them to name just one LIV Golf team. Three could do it, six could not, and one grinning guy astonishingly started rattling off the team names one by one until I realized he was looking over my shoulder at a scoreboard with all the team names and scores.
But next year, LIV Golf, whose major shareholder is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, will expand the number of tournaments, and the four-player teams will remain unchanged tournament to tournament, barring injury. Players on each team may even wear matching outfits of some sort, like a uniform, to drive home the team concept. The plan is also to make teams have a unifying theme: four Australians led by Smith, a South African team headed by Louis Oosthuizen, and other teams bound by nationality. LIV Golf has heavily recruited Hideki Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters champion, in hopes of heading a Japanese team.
The LIV Golf crowds at events are still sparse despite tickets being exceedingly cheap on the secondary ticket market. The attendance, which LIV Golf does not announce, is roughly one-fourth of what would be expected for a PGA Tour event.
The LIV Golf version of a fan village alongside the golf course has considerable energy, with myriad golf skill contest booths and food trucks that might evoke a county fair. There also seems to be a bar, with a line, at every turn.
But there is something else noticeable about the fan village. A giant screen was showing the golf taking place over on the course. I checked several times over three days, and while there were hundreds of fans standing and sitting around inside the village, it was rare to see anyone even glance briefly at the screen.
The competition, for all its newness, does resemble an elite golf tournament with the kind of booming drives and deft short games that only the world’s best players hit. Dustin Johnson won the 54-hole event on Sunday in a playoff over Joaquin Niemann and Anirban Lahiri.
But especially early on, some of the usual tension of a PGA Tour event, where the understanding is that a victory can be career-changing, was missing. On the driving range and the practice putting green before play begins, the atmosphere was unusually light and carefree — as if most of them knew that they had already been paid handsomely with guaranteed, upfront money. Which, of course, is the case.
But LIV Golf is in its infancy, and its baby steps have included the successful, stunning recruitment of a sizable number of prominent golfers — a flock that very few thought could be assembled so rapidly. The circuit has now played half of its scheduled tournaments, and it is not going away.
Monahan, the PGA Tour chieftain, is highly unlikely to consider Norman’s jumping out of an airplane a challenge that he must respond to in kind. But gaudy gestures aside, the new reality of men’s golf is that neither LIV Golf, which seemed to drop out of nowhere, nor the established PGA Tour is backing down.