Golf: LIV threw a sport into chaos. It also changed it

Sergio Garcia playing his shot during the semi-finals of the LIV Golf Invitational - Miami at Trump National Doral Miami on Saturday. PHOTO: AFP

DORAL, Florida To hear 52-year-old Phil Mickelson’s account, whatever happened this year in his golf career – a greed-fuelled rupture, a simply-business parting of ways, an inevitable estrangement, a lucrative exercise in denial and downplaying – has yielded something close to sublime.

“I see LIV Golf trending upward, I see the PGA Tour trending downward and I love the side that I’m on,” Mickelson said earlier in October in Saudi Arabia, the country whose sovereign wealth fund bankrolled the new LIV Golf circuit, including a Mickelson contract believed to be worth about US$200 million (S$282.3 million).

As the series closes its first season on Sunday, when its team championship event is to be decided at Trump National Doral Golf Club and a US$50 million prize fund divided, it can credibly claim that it has disrupted men’s professional golf more than anything else since the late 1960s, when what would become the PGA Tour emerged.

It has done so with a chequebook that seems boundless, nearly unchecked brazenness and self-assurance, and the political cover of a former United States president who has looked past Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights.

It has not, though, been a romp without resistance or an instantaneous and definitive dethroning of the old order.

The PGA Tour, now redesigning its economic model so urgently that it is tapping reserve funds, still commands the bigger roster of current stars and the loyalties of the tournaments that matter most to history. It has lucrative television deals; LIV Golf is on YouTube. Players earn world ranking points at PGA Tour events; they drop in the rankings the longer they compete in the new series. Dustin Johnson knows this well, as he is now No. 30, down from No. 13 when he signed with LIV in May. The former world No. 1 has also captured LIV’s individual championship and has won at least US$30 million on the circuit in 2022, after accruing about $75 million in career earnings during a PGA Tour tenure that started in 2007.

What many golf executives are figuring out, though, is that it is possible to revile much about LIV, from its financial patron to its devotion to 54-hole tournaments to its defiant dispensing of starchy atmospheres, and yet recognise that the PGA Tour had left itself vulnerable to at least a spasm of drama. Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy have been two of LIV Golf’s foremost critics – and two leading architects of a new strategy to fortify and reinvent a PGA Tour that had some popular players feeling undervalued and some younger ones struggling for financial breakthroughs.

The efforts of Woods and McIlroy have helped stabilize the tour to some degree. Pressures linger, though, and they go well beyond an ongoing antitrust inquiry by the US Justice Department. LIV Golf is planning 14 events next year, up from eight in 2022, and has said it will offer US$405 million in purses, an increase from the US$255 million that has been up for grabs this year. Its business model could expand to draw in new investors for LIV teams, and if the series can find a way into the world ranking system, its appeal among prospective players could rise further.

There is no guarantee of that, though. If organizers of the sport’s elite tournaments bar even some LIV golfers from the British Open, the Masters, the PGA Championship and the US Open starting next year, the upstart will have to find a way to diminish the siren songs of the green jacket and the claret jug. If LIV continues without a television deal, it will be starved of access to potentially millions of fans. And the PGA Tour can still depict the series as a brutal regime’s project to look better on the global stage.

That perception has been one of the tour’s most powerful public relations tools so far, and it may long temper the flow of corporate sponsorship dollars through and around the LIV world.

Worries about Saudi influence have not deterred former president Donald Trump from offering vocal support for the series, giving the circuit a powerful ally and clear access to at least some good courses. The site of the team championship was a PGA Tour mainstay for decades, and Trump courses are expected to be fixtures of LIV’s 2023 season.

Trump, in a brief interview with The New York Times as he left the 18th hole near Miami on Thursday, said he had not entertained any second thoughts about his family-controlled golf courses hosting LIV events. The former president suggested that his conversations with Saudi officials had convinced him that the kingdom’s embrace of golf was “very important to them” and that “they’re putting a lot of effort into it and a lot of money into it.”

As president, Trump publicly resisted US intelligence agencies when they concluded that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had authorized the 2018 murder of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked on Thursday about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, Trump said, “We have human rights issues in this country, too.”

Earlier that day, Trump had been eager to criticise the PGA Tour and to extol the virtues of LIV leaders.

“They should have embraced instead of fighting,” he said of the PGA Tour after he played the 17th hole during a pro-am event. “You’re not going to beat these people. These people have great spirit, they’re phenomenal people and they have unlimited money – unlimited.”

The PGA Tour, he added to a small clutch of reporters, “has been destroyed by the PGA” Tour.

The PGA Tour’s supporters dispute that and point to plans for bigger purses next year and the preservation and elevation of what McIlroy, for instance, has called a “pure meritocracy”.

Nineteen of the world’s top 20 golfers are still affiliated with the tour, with Cameron Smith, the reigning British Open winner and the world No. 3, the exception. But there is no use play-acting as if there has not been a siege, and although LIV has plenty of players who toil in something close to anonymity, it has lured enough big, if sometimes aged, names to ensure that its flaws have not swamped the series from its first moments. This is not the World Tour that Greg Norman, LIV’s commissioner, tried to create in the 1990s and then watched meet a speedy end.

So not long after noon Friday, after the AC/DC song “Thunderstruck” washed over the grounds and a team of parachutists steered to landings, Mickelson and Smith stood at the ninth tee, ready for their shotgun start. Dozens of people, but not hundreds, gathered to watch two men who had combined for seven Major championships.

At least a few of the fans seemed to talk more about the millions the players were earning than the golf. But there were stars and some strain of competitive golf – and the PGA Tour’s logo nowhere to be found. NYTIMES

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