Let’s go to Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland, Ore., for the latest on the upstart LIV Golf series. Charl Schwartzel, lugging around the $4 million he won earlier this month outside London, lost the first ball he hit, opened with a double bogey and, well, who really cares that he finished the day buried near the bottom of the leader board? Graeme McDowell, captain of a team somehow known as the Niblicks, was 4 over par before an hour had elapsed, further forging his path to irrelevance. Brooks Koepka debuted for Team Smash, which has a logo that looks like, um, flatulence. Edgy!
Golf always has had a silly season. It has never before straddled June and July, when major championships are strung together with meaningful tournaments in between. The renegade series is, of course, trying to brashly change all that. It has high appeal as being both lucrative and stress-free for the players.
But as a product that raises the hairs on the backs of necks? It feels like second-rate reality TV, properly relegated to, say, the CW. (Or, actually, streaming on LIVGolf.com or YouTube.) In golf, iron has long sharpened iron. No one ever said gold sharpens gold. The most malleable of metals might, indeed, soften all who have stuck their snouts in the trough.
It’s important to constantly keep in mind the source of LIV’s extensive — indeed, almost endless — wealth and funding: the Saudi Arabian government. Sure, it’s lightly laundered through something called the Public Investment Fund, which bills itself “sovereign,” a laughable notion given that the chairman of the board is none other than Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the board consists of members of the Saudi establishment. Each of these players has signed up to take money from a murderous regime, and that colors the entire entity.
But put the moral qualms aside for a minute, and what are you left with? It would seem a tricked-up mess of a product. That’s not just because it’s different. On the face of it, different isn’t bad. But start with that fact, and go back to what Jon Rahm — the Spaniard ranked second in the world who has pledged his loyalty to the PGA Tour — said before the U.S. Open. It rang true at the time. As LIV Golf stages the second event in its torch-the-establishment existence, it seems more pertinent now.
“Part of the format is not really appealing to me,” Rahm said. “Shotgun, three days, to me is not a golf tournament. No cut. I want to play against the best in the world in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years. That’s what I want to see.”
And think about what played out over the week that followed at the Country Club outside Boston: a leader board that was dotted with the game’s stars — Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa and Scottie Scheffler among them. On the weekend, as has been true for generations, the leaders teed off not at the same time as everyone else but last, playing into the dying light. That left Matt Fitzpatrick and Will Zalatoris in the final group, staring each other down. It’s how these championships have been decided for years. It made for a thrilling Sunday.
By the final round — which, in the LIV world, is the third round — a LIV field is reshuffled so that the leaders indeed tee off from the first hole. But as they begin a round that determines who wins $4 million for coming in first and who takes $120,000 for placing last, the leaders tee off from the first hole at the same time those in seventh through ninth tee off from the second.
It’s a shotgun start, with all the disorder that implies. The leaders play the course as it’s meant to be played: The starting hole means something; the finishing hole means something else. Except for everyone else, who finishes not on the 18th but on the fifth or the seventh or wherever.
That doesn’t feel like a championship event. It feels like a Monday-morning shotgun to benefit the Four Counties Foodbank. Which, come to think of it, would do more good for the world than lining, say, Pat Perez’s pockets with $580,000 for finishing ninth.
This weekend, LIV Golf’s Portland-area event goes up against the John Deere Classic, a down-the-docket PGA Tour event that happens to have a history that dates back more than half a century. It was preceded by last week’s Travelers, outside Hartford, Conn., won by young star Xander Schauffele. The Travelers and the John Deere Classic aren’t exactly marquee PGA Tour events. But they at least have some history — Jordan Spieth holing out from the bunker on 18 and bumping chests with caddie Michael Greller, Jim Furyk shooting a 58, Iowan Zach Johnson winning at home, Bubba Watson tearfully winning for the first time.
LIV Golf can’t be expected to have history in a month’s time. But it also can’t pretend to be meaningful just because it exists.
“I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that,” Rahm said in those pre-Open remarks. “There’s some meaning when you win the Memorial championship. There’s some meaning when you win Arnold Palmer’s event in Bay Hill. There’s some meaning when you win L.A. [at Riviera], Torrey [Pines], some of these historic venues. That, to me, matters a lot.”
There’s some procedural stuff that lessens the LIV luster, too. Koepka, for one, has long said he cares most about major championships, of which he has four. That’s an admirable way of thinking, one shared by Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods, to name a few.
But by joining LIV Golf, Koepka has — at least for now — potentially boxed his way out of majors. His ticket to the 2023 Masters is punched — assuming Augusta National doesn’t ban LIV players — because he won the 2018 U.S. Open. Winners of the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA Championship get invitations to Augusta for the following five years.
The path back to the Masters in 2024 and beyond, though, is harder than it was two months ago. Players who win a PGA Tour event in the year since the last Masters gain entry. Koepka and the others can’t win PGA Tour events if they can’t play in them, so that avenue is blocked.
Players who are in the top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking at the end of the previous calendar year, as well as the week before the Masters start, are granted entry to Augusta. But right now — and perhaps forever — LIV Golf events don’t allow players to rack up OWGR points. That’s a coming crux point: LIV players currently play in tricked-up, irrelevant events. If the current rules don’t change, they may have trouble relying on the majors to maintain their relevance.
What’s true about this weekend outside Portland: Someone will win $4 million for coming in first, and the first loser will cash out for $2.125 million — nearly a million more than the John Deere champion. That matters to the players and their investment advisers, regardless of how dirty the money might be.
What matters to the golf viewer is the test provided and the tournament that follows. LIV players have pushed the idea that golf can be a force of good. That’s suspect at best, particularly when the golf being produced feels more like a second-rate carnival than a first-class competition.