This time last year, Phil Mickelson was the beloved reigning PGA Championship winner and LIV was the Super Bowl that Patrick Mahomes won. A whole lot can change in 12 months, can’t it?
LIV Golf has wrapped its initial season, making a whole lot of players a whole lot of money. More than that, LIV has bulldogged its way into the golf conversation, dominating both headlines and practice-range chat for the last four months. Dismissed as a joke or an irrelevancy by people who should have been a little more worried, LIV has established itself as a legitimate competitor — and threat — to the PGA Tour and its Normal Way Of Doing Business.
In its first year, LIV upended the entire golf landscape, and reached the season’s finish line in better shape than when it started. The league started with a few past-their-prime former stars, but by the end of the season had lured major winners such as Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and eventually World No. 2 Cam Smith into the fold. The outrage over the league’s Saudi financial backing cooled, as is often the case with outrage, and media outlets are beginning to report LIV scores without the “Saudi-backed” or “rebel tour” modifiers. The concerns over sportswashing still exist, though, and the fact that outrage has cooled is proof that the sportswashing of Saudi atrocities is working as designed.
Clearly, Rory McIlroy’s February declaration that LIV was “dead in the water” was off the mark. So what will LIV do for an encore? How has LIV changed the world of golf right now? Here’s where things stand on multiple fronts.
The validation: LIV’s initial value proposition was pretty straightforward: throw an absolute truckload of money at pretty much every golfer on the PGA Tour and see who bites. And a whole lot of big names — Mickelson, Johnson Smith, Koepka, DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia – ended up biting. One year ago, the idea that at least half the most notable and well-known golfers on the PGA Tour would bounce for a breakaway tour was laughable. Now, the next question is … who’s next?
The broadcast possibilities: The chief problem that LIV faces is the fact that almost nobody is watching the actual golf. The palace intrigue is fascinating, but unless and until fans start actually watching the golf for its own sake, LIV will be a debate topic rather than an actual sporting event. LIV never managed to secure a broadcast deal to show any of its events on anything more substantial than YouTube. LIV whipped up tremendous buzz, and managed to spin some fanciful hypotheticals about its future prospects, but unless it can get viewers interested in it as a sporting event, there’s a limit to its runway.
The experience: LIV bills itself as “Golf, but louder,” and it lived up to that slogan from every angle, even if it had to force the issue. LIV tournaments were a combination of a tailgate, a club dance party and (at Trump-owned courses) a political rally, with a bit of golf in between. LIV players — and their legions of Twitter defenders — also got loud over the course of the season, taking shots at the PGA Tour, the Official World Golf Rankings, the majors and pretty much everyone who wasn’t in the LIV tent. Some fans loved it, some hated it, but nobody had any tepid feelings about LIV’s attitude.
The World Golf Rankings: LIV has tried to gain points for its players through every means possible: through declaration, through lawsuits, through a backdoor alignment with a dormant low-level tour that already had a points alignment with the Official World Golf Rankings. None of these gambits have worked, and the OWGR is keeping LIV at arm’s length while it engages in that most golf-like of pursuits: endless debate over bureaucratic minutiae. Does a 54-hole, shotgun-start, no-cut event like a LIV tournament deserve world ranking points? On the other hand, if the OWGR is dedicated to ranking the world’s best golfers, shouldn’t several of the world’s best golfers continue to earn points when they are playing golf? The OWGR kicked the can down the road back in July when it declared a decision could take as long as a year, but the clock continues to tick.
The world rankings are the key to entering golf’s four majors, which — aside from money — are the major motivating factor for any professional golfer. Several LIV players have existing exemptions from their prior victories or strong finishes, but for those who don’t — particularly the younger, less-accomplished players LIV is hoping to attract — the rankings are the most straightforward pathway into the majors. Speaking of which …
The PGA of America, which runs the PGA Championship, has taken the strongest anti-LIV stand of the four majors. Augusta National has maintained its customary silence, but getting dragged into this conversation, as well as LIV lawsuits, won’t please the green jackets. The R&A, which administers the Open Championship, has recently shown the first signs of thawing toward LIV players. If one opens the door, will the other three follow?
The lawsuit: Also still lurking out there: the lawsuit Mickelson and multiple other LIV players filed against the PGA Tour. While several players have dropped out of the suit, many still remain, and the question of how the PGA Tour conducts its business will be the focus of the trial that runs throughout 2023. A key factor will be discovery, when the court and the golf world will learn some of the behind-the-scenes maneuvering of LIV, the Tour, and potentially even Augusta National, the USGA and others. Far more eyes will be on a northern California courtroom than are on many tournaments each year.
The PGA Tour’s response: Spurred to action by the LIV threat, the PGA Tour has responded by juicing several tournaments with much more money and, in turn, establishing a system where the biggest names play in all its biggest tournaments. This is very good news for the big names, but it stands to create a two-tier system of haves and have-nots within the PGA Tour. The “elevated tournaments” system will get its first run-through after the new year, as the PGA Tour transitions away from its wraparound schedule and into a calendar-year one. Will it be enough to keep either the haves or have-nots from testing the LIV waters? If the carrot of elevated tournaments doesn’t do the job, the stick of instant suspension from the Tour just might.
The politics and protests: Any venture involving former president Donald Trump becomes, by definition, a political event and one focused at least partly on Trump himself. Both an early season tournament in New Jersey and the season-ending team event in Miami took place at Trump-owned courses, and the former president was an active and visible presence at both. Trump’s hammer-the-elites rhetoric meshes well with LIV’s stated intention to upend the old ways of golf, and the two will be partners for the foreseeable future. On the other end of the spectrum, protests against LIV, largely against the Saudi government and its involvement in 9/11, drew substantial news coverage but appeared to have little inside-the-venue effect on tournament operations.
The future: One of the most fascinating questions of the summer was the constant “Will he/won’t he?” about possible defectors. As the majors and then the PGA Tour season passed, multiple notable players, including Smith and Joaquin Niemann, decided to make the jump to LIV. The pace of tour-jumpers has slowed in recent weeks, but a report this week in The Guardian indicated multiple big names — among them Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele — could be preparing to make the leap to LIV. Some of these pre-jump predictions have panned out (Koepka, Smith) and some haven’t (Hideki Matsuyama). Any future defections — particularly young, talented, highly ranked players — would only strengthen LIV’s position with potential sponsors and broadcasters.
The next iteration of LIV won’t be long in coming. LIV intends to conduct a 14-event season starting in February, running through the summer, and ending before the NFL kicks off. The prospective schedule, heavy on team-based events, would avoid both majors and high-profile PGA Tour events like the Memorial and the Arnold Palmer Invitational. LIV also intends to formalize and franchise its team structure, offering equity to players and sponsorship opportunities for investors. Whether anyone will actually buy 4 Aces or Niblicks merch remains to be seen, but after laying out untold millions to get LIV off the ground, the tour is looking to start getting revenue flowing inward rather than outward.
It’s still all hypothetical at this point, but after LIV pulled off a successful first season, the odds of it happening are far better than anyone outside of LIV would have predicted a year ago.