BEDMINSTER, N.J. — The players who have absconded to the LIV Golf Invitational Series have consistently said their decision to join the deep-pocketed, Saudi-backed venture was not about the money.
“No, money was not a factor,” Charles Howell III said this week to a room of skeptical reporters.
So, then, what is this all about? What makes this nascent series, steeped in controversy and determined to buck tradition, “the future of golf,” as Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and others who have signed on keep calling it.
This weekend’s LIV Golf event at Trump National Golf Club involved serious money — a total purse of $25 million — and took great efforts to present itself as golf with attitude. Or at least a personality. There were paratroopers before the first tee shot and T-shirt guns during breaks in the action. Music — stadium rock, Top 40, dance — blared from speakers across the course, even as players lined up tricky putts.
With a different competition format, LIV is trying to be more than a fresh coat of paint on a sport that has resisted big changes. But thus far, with relatively thin crowds, modest online viewership numbers and much of the attention focused on peripheral controversies, it’s not yet clear whether there’s an audience for LIV’s version of the sport — or whether that even matters to the circuit’s wealthy benefactors.
“We firmly believe that we can attract a younger audience,” Atul Khosla, the LIV president and chief operating officer, said in an interview. “ … If you look at golf over the years, it’s aged. I think the average viewership is 65 and older. And I think from our perspective, when we looked at launching a new product, we’ve always viewed it from the lens of, ‘What are we trying to solve for?’ And what we’re trying to solve for is get younger people playing golf, watching golf, becoming fans of golf. And we think we can do that by changing how the product is packaged.”
For the uninitiated, LIV presents golf as both an individual and a team sport. There are 12 teams, with names such as Crushers, Majesticks and Aces. The winning four-man team this week will split $3 million; the event’s individual winner will take home $4 million. But the tournament is unlike other organizations in that it features a shotgun start — every player begins his round at the same time from a different hole on the course — there is no cut, and the entire event lasts three days, not four.
Traditionalists might deride the format as gimmicky, but LIV defenders will counter that the format is not trying to cater to traditionalists.
Mickelson is perhaps the biggest believer — and he has millions of reasons to be, courtesy of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. He has noted that LIV Golf intends to target a global audience with events staged around the world. The players can’t skip faraway stops; they’re contractually obligated to show up.
“We receive a ton of money, and we give up our schedule, and we commit to wherever they hold the events,” Mickelson said.
The play inside the ropes would feel familiar for any golf fan, but the format and the delivery are the biggest departures.
“One, it’s not a 12-hour day, having to watch golf all day. You’ve got a 4½-hour window,” Mickelson said. “Second, when I think a streaming partner comes about, I think it’s going to revolutionize the way golf is viewed because you’ll have no commercials and you’ll have shot after shot after shot and it will capture that younger generation’s attention span.”
The Bedminster event aimed for a festival-like atmosphere, with a stage set up for a Chainsmokers concert at the conclusion of Sunday’s final round.
“We view this course as our stadium, and the things that you could experience at a stadium or an arena, how do we best bring those things to a golf course?” said Khosla, a former executive with the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and before that with the Chicago Fire of MLS.
With taps flowing and drinks easy to find across the course, the mood was light from tee to green. Fans are close to the action — “Nice shot, Phil,” a fan near the 14th green said, “you just cost me 20 bucks” — but the crowds at Bedminster were rarely two deep, even around the most popular players.
At times, the LIV product can feel merely like golf with a soundtrack. Despite the big names LIV officials have lured from the PGA and European tours — the 48-man field this weekend included 11 major champions — the field was still an uneven mix of the who’s-who and who’s-that of the golf world.
Measuring its popularity is tricky, in part because the start-up doesn’t seem concerned about traditional metrics in these early stages. Unlike at other pro golf events, there aren’t corporate logos and signage littering the course. Though the LIV Golf social media accounts are active, there is no television rights deal and no commercials on the streaming broadcasts.
Fewer than 1,000 people were concurrently watching the Facebook Live feed for much of the first two rounds this weekend, while LIV Golf’s YouTube channel was at or above 60,000 viewers for much of Saturday’s second round. On the course, there were far fewer people. Event officials didn’t announce attendance, though most estimates suggested only a few thousand spectators. Tickets sold for $75 per day but could be had on the secondary market for $1 apiece (plus $5.05 in fees via StubHub).
Meanwhile, with its controversial Saudi backing, the alliance with former president Donald Trump — whose courses will host two LIV events — and the peril it poses to the pro golf establishment, the actual competition has drawn scant attention through three events. (Henrik Stenson, who lost his Ryder Cup captaincy after he joined LIV, leads this weekend’s event through two rounds; the first two events were won by South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace.)
The days leading up to the Bedminster event were overshadowed by Trump and the families of 9/11 victims, who are protesting LIV Golf events because of the Saudi benefactors. On Friday afternoon, a couple hundred spectators surrounded the 10th tee box to watch Mickelson begin his round. As the golfer approached his ball, someone shouted, “Do it for the Saudi royal family!” and Mickelson quietly backed away. He regrouped and smacked his shot into a bunker as a staffer approached the fan and issued a warning.
But most fans strolling around Trump’s Bedminster club were supportive of the assembled golfers, hoisting cameras in the air to record tee shots, shouting encouragement for big drives, studying the giant leader boards throughout the course and trying to make sense of the format.
The team element could take time for golf fans to digest, but players have repeatedly cited it as part of the appeal. “I love being able to look up at that leader board and not just see my name but also look for my guys,” golfer Patrick Reed said.
LIV officials think the format is the draw, but it’s also what could jeopardize LIV players from being able to perform on the sport’s biggest stages. Players have voiced few misgivings about leaving their former tours, but many have said they hope they still will be eligible for majors and Ryder Cup events.
While a handful of players have exemptions into some majors, other could miss out because the Official World Golf Ranking board hasn’t yet decided whether it will recognize LIV Golf events.
“I feel like it would be kind of crazy not to get any points if we’re playing in these big-time events,” Abraham Ancer said.
LIV Golf officials have publicized plans for the future but have made no indication they will be tweaking their competition format. The breakaway outfit announced plans for a full 2023 season that will include 12 teams competing in 14 events. A news release last week made no mention of the 54-hole format or shotgun starts, but Khosla said LIV Golf is committed to its format for now and that officials are hopeful the OWGR will recognize its events.
While many of the game’s stakeholders fret over the upheaval fracturing the sport, the players who have made the LIV leap have said they’re hopeful the game can support both the preexisting tours and this start-up, complete with its bouncing soundtrack.
“The landscape in golf is looking good,” golfer Ian Poulter said.