LIV Golf’s attempt to disrupt the sport has been nothing short of a reality show, and if you’ve ever watched a reality show you know they are entertaining, bewitching and speak to an inner craving that we’re ashamed of admitting. Melodrama! Self-sabotage! Unintentional comedy! Shady business deals! People who seem like nightmares!
It was a guilty pleasure, mostly because it existed merely in the abstract. Of course the undeniable truth about reality shows is there’s not much “real” about them. LIV Golf? In spite of its trappings—perhaps in spite of itself—LIV Golf has proved over the past nine days it is very real, and its evolution from a concept to something concrete has massive consequences. And none of them seem good for golf.
It’s too early to validate LIV’s aspirations to “reinvigorate” the sport, particularly given the motives behind them. But the enterprise can’t be dismissed, much as the PGA Tour wishes to do so. Not after LIV’s coup of signing Dustin Johnson and in-their-prime stars like Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed. Not with a number of other players about to follow suit or weighing a similar jump. Not with LIV’s endless mountain of gold that would put Scrooge McDuck to shame. The operation has brought the game to the once-unthinkable precipice of a schism at the professional level.
That’s an important delineation, “schism.” Competition in any business is healthy. It can usher positive change and spur innovation and force the entities in question to be better because that is what is required to survive. Schisms … schisms can be terminal. Any doubters only need to look at the dystopian wasteland that boxing has become.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has said he does not want a schism; he envisions LIV to be additive to the sport. Norman is also rolling out a field in London this week that, with a few notable exceptions, is composed of has-beens and never-wasers competing for ungodly sums of money under the misguided notion that it will somehow help a maligned government sportswash its image. How that is additive to the sport, how that is interesting to golf fans, remains unclear. In a related note, tickets remain widely available.
If that’s all that LIV Golf could be this wouldn’t be a discussion. Theoretically it could help the PGA Tour and DP World Tour, cleansing them of those stuck in the purgatory between relevance and the Champions circuit and making way for fledgling stars. But for all that it hasn’t been, LIV has shown just enough of what it could be—and the chaos it could impel—and that’s the problem.
There’s the problem of the disruptor in question, the series being funded by the Saudi Arabian government, for it is driving this discussion and its direction seems aimless. Perhaps the issue begins with the vehicle itself. There is a fundamental fault with the competition that LIV Golf is creating, and for a second put aside the problematic strings to this venture and focus on that competition. At its heart, golf is appreciated for being the purest rendition of meritocracy, where spots aren’t given and you only make what you earn. LIV Golf is the antithesis of this spirit. It offers signing bonuses and no-cut guaranteed paydays to players most fans would not pay to see. Aside from the general curiosity surrounding its Thursday debut and a better-than-expected production, the LIV Golf presentation had no appeal. There was nothing on the line, no reason for these guys to be playing aside from the chance to line their pockets no matter how they finish. It is a glorified exhibition, a televised member-guest, and nothing more.
Norman and the LIV Golf team also seem incapable of taking a step forward without stepping on their own foot. LIV Golf’s entire existence has been marked by incompetence and parody, a sentiment encapsulated by this week’s London event. There was the drama of a reporter tossed out of a press conference; schadenfreude at the series’ logos that appeared lifted from a kindergarten classroom; bewilderment at the appearance of Phil Mickelson, who ended his months-long sabbatical, showing up to a draft party in stubble and an all-leather ensemble that can only be described as mid-life crisis mixed with Top Gun cosplay. James Piot, who is a professional, is listed as an amateur while Hudson Swafford was listed as Swafford Hudson on the LIV website. The drawing party accidentally revealed “Patrick Reed” on the board a day before reports of Reed joining LIV trickled out. Comical as these missteps can be, they are less comical when understanding these knuckleheads can alter the fate of the sport.
No doubt, LIV Golf will move forward and potentially grow. Players will see other players—many who are lower than themselves on the sport’s hierarchy—having the Brinks truck backed up for playing in a handful of events and think, “Yeah, I’d like some of that.” And they could, for LIV Golf has blank checks and a forever runway to take flight, and is willing to take others down in order for it to rise.
Which brings us to the problem facing the PGA Tour, and make no mistake, it is bad. This is merely the first wave of defectors, especially if the majors don’t stand in solidarity with the tour in the long run. The money is too tempting and where that money comes from has not been a deterrent to a contingent of golfers. How do you sell your product to fans, telling them this is worth their time, when the very players who populated the tour are saying the opposite?
This should serve as an intervention for the tour. It bet hard on legacy and lost. By its own popularity rankings, the No. 2, No. 5 and No. 7 players in its Player Impact Program have left. Or, framed in another light, the tour gifted Mickelson, DeChambeau and Johnson a collective $12.5 million to incentivise them to stay … and were trumped by roughly $400 million by LIV Golf. That’s not including Bubba Watson, who finished 10th in the PIP and was accidentally featured in a LIV promotional video Thursday morning amid rumours he, too, is leaving. There are bigger purses, bigger bonus pools, bigger FedEx Cup bonanzas coming to the tour, but they don’t have the resources to engage in an arms race, and legacy won’t be enough.
This moment should force a hard look in the mirror to those at PGA Tour headquarters. The reason rogue leagues were fun thought exercises is because the tour has fallen into stasis. The product has become oversaturated with too many events and at times it seems allergic to creativity. Older, rank-and-file players continue to receive priority over Korn Ferry Tour up-and-comers when it comes to exemptions and field alternate lists. It insists on selling the importance of the playoffs, and the moment you have to explain why you matter is the moment you prove the opposite. On Thursday, the tour suspended those who defected yet the announcement was muted and most of those who made the jump had already resigned.
Worse, the tour does not control its destiny. That lies with the major championships, championships that some fans and players believe are the only things that matter. Yes, the tour is what introduces golf’s characters, giving them depth and backstory and interest and more importantly a stage. But, for the most part, LIV can offer the same stage. Sources have told Golf Digest there is a general unity behind the scenes between the tour and the other governing bodies. Still, it’s not the job of Augusta National, the USGA, the R&A and PGA of America to clean up this mess, and that the tour is beholden to them to succeed should be a wake-up call. If tour officials don’t take this moment to take a serious analysis of the product it’s presenting, they are just as much a threat to themselves as LIV Golf is to them.
Which is why, ultimately, a potential schism inflicts the most pain on fans. This has become a sideshow with the worst type of actors, and as bad as the play has been, where it could lead is worse. Now fans’ attention will be divided between an entity that doesn’t know what it’s doing and doesn’t offer much in the way of competition yet does boast some marquee names, against the traditional power with true competition and true consequences that could lose the very stars needed to pull people in. Forget additive; that is the very definition of subtraction. It is a diluted product.
And a product that now raises a question of morality. Fans tune into sports to forget about the real world. Instead, LIV Golf brings the real world issues front and centre, funded by a government accused of human rights atrocities. Worse, fans are watching a considerable amount of stars they follow willing to barter their goodwill to be a puppet for a regime that couldn’t care less about the sport they allegedly love.
That sounds mawkish, and professional sports has long revealed its dark sides. Conversely, sports remain one of the few forums with the ability to bring this ever-divided culture together. In our neck of the woods, that is golf. One of the things that holds our attention are the players in the arena, and when you invest as much time and emotion as being a fan requires, it’s understandable to develop certain feelings towards them. To see that love means nothing can breach even the most hardened of hearts.
So far, we don’t know if this divide is a trainwreck, or a reality show. Whatever it is, it is no good.