Business as Usual?

The inaugural round of LIV Golf felt a lot like a conventional tournament, and that could be a problem for the PGA Tour

By Alan Shipnuck

HEMEL HEMPSTEAD, England — In the end, it all felt so…routine? One of the most freighted days in the recent history of the sport began with trumpets blaring and was interrupted by a trans-Atlantic saber-rattling, but across the grounds at Centurion Club, a rather normal golf tournament broke out on Thursday. Poulter preened, Sergio pouted, Dustin strutted, Phil grinned and a surprisingly robust crowd spooned it all up. For all the angst created by LIV Golf—more specifically, by the taint of its Saudi money—and all the lip service paid to its (modest) innovations, the inaugural tournament felt pretty much like a run-of-the-mill event on the European or PGA Tour. 

For LIV, that has to be considered a monumental achievement.

“You could feel it’s different,” first-round leader Charl Schwartzel said of the much-ballyhooed shotgun start. “I was standing on the 3rd tee box for about 10 minutes, and there was nobody with me. And eventually I took my phone out and I was phoning Graeme [McDowell]. I said, ‘Graeme, mate, where are you? Am I on the right tee box?’ That made it very different for me than what you would be used to, being announced on the 1st tee. But then once you got going, it was just golf for me.”

At 2:15 p.m., just before the first shot was struck, a military flyover crowded the gunmetal-gray skies, but such theatrics were wholly unnecessary for one simple reason: Phil Mickelson was teeing it up again. It was his dalliance with LIV that had sent the Hall of Famer into a four-month exile. His return to public life began with an awkward but occasionally revealing pre-tournament press conference: It was significant and commendable that Mickelson spoke of his ongoing battle with a gambling addiction; the anecdotal evidence had long suggested he had a problem, but publicly taking ownership required courage and humility. He also walked back his previous callous comments about Saudi atrocities. Late-period Phil had become something of a cartoon character, with the aviator sunglasses, hair dye and all the crowing about his calves and the bombs he was hitting off the tee. Even with his carefully parsed press conference words, Mickelson displayed a little less hubris and a little more humanity. 

And during the first round, he seemed visibly relieved to re-enter his sanctuary between the ropes. On the first drive of the rest of his life, Mickelson roasted one down the middle, and he grinded with an intensity that belied the tournament’s lack of gravitas. Precise iron play overcame some sloppy driving and rusty putting, and Mickelson’s opening 69 put him in a tie for seventh, four strokes back of Schwartzel. Mickelson competed with the determination of a man who knows that how he will be remembered will depend in part on the success of a renegade tour he helped launch. Is his name destined to be spoken with reverence like Curt Flood’s, as an agent of change who reshaped the sports landscape? Or will this last act of Mickelson’s career evoke Jake LaMotta in Las Vegas, as a past-his-prime palooka serving as a curiosity for fans who are drawn by spectacle and not sport? When the round was over, Mickelson couldn’t hide his relief. (Deliverance was the overriding emotion of the day, as a couple of high-ranking Saudi dignitaries dispensed plenty of celebratory hugs throughout the round.) “I really enjoyed today,” Mickelson said. “It was fun for me to get back out playing. It’s a very cool energy here.” 

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Mickelson’s group attracted by far the biggest gallery of the day, though it surely helped that he was playing alongside Dustin Johnson; at 15 in the OWGR, DJ is the highest-ranked player in the 48-man field. The crowd was unmoored, especially early in the round, with many fans simply ducking under the ropes to get closer to the action. In a shallow field, the more established players needed to deliver for LIV, and Johnson fought his way to a 69 despite push-slicing a drive O.B. on the 7th hole. Along with Mickelson and Schwartzel, that’s three Masters champions on the leaderboard. Meanwhile, the top eight spots at the PGA Tour’s concurrent Canadian Open are being held down by Wyndham Clark, Matt Fitzpatrick, Doug Ghim, Harold Varner, Mac Hughes, Lee Hodges, Tony Finau and some dude named McIlroy. The lack of starpower at the top of the leaderboard illustrates what a threat LIV has already become to the PGA Tour, so it was no surprise that an hour after the first round commenced in England, an email leaked in which Tour commissioner Jay Monahan informed his constituents he was suspending the 17 Tour members who teed it up for LIV. This is the first gambit in what promises to be a long, complicated, legalistic battle that threatens to blow up the world order of professional golf. The ex-communicated didn’t learn their fate until stepping off the course. Ian Poulter was among those who said he was ready to fight. “I’ve done nothing wrong,” he maintained.

When it comes to LIV, very little is black-and-white. But after more than a year of talk and speculation and misdirection, one thing is abundantly clear: This new renegade tour is the real thing.

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29 thoughts on “Business as Usual?”

  1. Alan,

    Great work as usual. I think the PGA tour needs to innovate as the current product is kind of stale. Do you think this could be a competitive challenge similar to the ABA vs NBA for example, that ultimately changed NBA long term and that this could perhaps change (or crush) the PGA tour? Thanks.

  2. Don’t think the “lack of star power” at the PGA leaderboard shows that LIV is already a threat. The week before the US Open and you still have top flight players, vs DJ putting it in cruise control and the likes of Chase Koepka at the top of the leaderboard. Also seems like Norman brainwashed these guys on being independent contractors. Yes that’s true but the Tour is it’s own league with its own membership guidelines when you sign the contract to play there. They sign a release for its members to play in the Saudi event and have a partnership with DP world tour which is why some players hold cards in each. Go play LIV but you’re leaving the Tour to do so, you don’t see NBA players being allowed to take time off from the season to go play games in the CBA

    1. I don’t think any of the three Masters Champions would be anywhere near the leaderboard at the RBC. First I’m not sure two of them would have played in it.

      Had all three been at the RBC maybe 2 would be in the top 15 . The third more than likely would have missed the cut.

  3. I think the innovations were pathetic. The PGATour needs to innovate. I have been trying to propose a 2 hr event creating leagues with promotion relegation where every shot counts…..49 players per league. Sadly I cant get anyone to help me get to them to listen….you can manipulate the groupings for TV and the best bit it is transferrable to clubs, social golf, twilight golf, seniors golf too.

    1. Agreed, and I like your ideas! The PGA tour is essentially stuck showing us tournaments that are reruns each week: the same thing every week, with different names for sponsors, different players in contention (who are remarkably similar in almost every way). The NASCAR analogy has been made and I think it applies. The Fedex cup is not sufficient to create a season long competition that is felt each week among most fans. I think it is one of the reasons the majors are still more popular and respected: each one has it’s own unique structure for eligibility, it’s own approach to renowned golf courses, and its own traditions. I am not sure I care if LIVGolf livs or dies (sorry), but I hope it leads the PGATour explore all the other great competitive formats available for televised golf: medal play, teams, even captain’s choice!

  4. You’re like that annoying reporter from the Die Hard movies… Richard Thornburg.
    Fly all the way to London and not expect pushback? Come on, dude. You’re arrogant.
    Nice to see Greg Norman get the best of you. How do you like the taste of your own medicine?

    1. Mate, journalist don’t just rock up at sporting events. You have to register for a Press Pass with the organisers in advance to attend. If LIV had an issue with him they could have declined to issue a press pass for the event. Once they issued him one, they should just let him get on with his job, which is not to fawn over this new product. He’s not working in PR…

      1. He bought a ticket and attended as a fan. He didn’t have a press pass. Alan said this on a podcast a few days ago.

        1. Per Bleacher Report: “As far as Shipnuck knows, he didn’t break any rules. He told Golfweek in a text message, ‘I was credentialed and I was standing in the flash area at the start of Phil’s presser when they came for me.'”

    2. How exactly did choke-job Norman get the best of Shipnuck? By lying to him and immediately getting roasted for the world to see?

    3. Ridiculous. In terms of arrogance, there is practically no one on the planet who could top Norman. I have followed Shipnuck for some time and read his book, which is nothing but truth. He is far from arrogant.

  5. What I find unrealistic is the amount of vitriol that is leveled at those who have signed up to the LIV tour. The reason most mentioned is that they have thrown all their morals away to a tour funded by a country that has a dubious human rights record.
    There are many countries with dubious human rights records and yet that does not stop major sporting events being held there. It does not stop other nations and the USA trading with these nations unless in times of perhaps armed conflict e.g. Russia/Ukraine.
    It’s unrealistic to cherry pick i.e. don’t fund a golf tour if it conflicts with our golf tour because that doesn’t suit us but we will purchase your gas and put it in our cars as that does suit us.
    Get Real and let market forces decide.

    1. Cherry pick? Saudi Arabia commits some of the biggest human rights atrocities in the world. Homosexuals are killed and jailed, torture and capital punishment are common, women couldn’t vote or drive there until about 10 years ago. And this is just some of the “highlights”.

      Meanwhile, over 60% of US oil now comes from Canada, so just shut up about your whataboutism.

      If you’re going to have a blind eye to all of this then just admit you care more about watching a new tour over all of this.

      1. All true about Saudi Arabia, agreed. But the PGATour’s moral stance about that seems a bit convenient and possibly hypocritical. The PGATour is now partnered/aligned with the DPWorld Tour (formerly the European Tour). First, the European Tour and the DP World Tour have played tournaments in Saudi Arabia for years. and nobody said anything. In fact, the DPWorld Tour is sponsored by DP World International (formerly known as Dubai Ports International), which is fully owned by the United Arab Emirate, which has a human rights record only a bit better than Saudi Arabia. So, it seems the PGATour only has a problem with sources of sponsorship when there is a competitive threat.

  6. As things presently stand the LIV is not a particular threat to anyone, as it felt to me like a meaningless silly season event. But if the Saudis really want to throw enough money around, the PGA Tour cannot go toe to toe with them. The Saudis seem to have unlimited cash. That is not a poker game I would want to be in if I was Jay Monahan.

  7. Back in the ‘90s, Wilt Chamberlain went on one of the late night talk shows and was asked what he thought about Michael Jordan. Wilt being Wilt, he thought he was better than Jordan, but also thought that every NBA player of the day should pay him 10% of their salaries, because Jordan was responsible for the money they were making. This could be said, but even more, of Tiger Woods in golf. I think people forget that when Tiger first hit the pro scene, there were PGA Tour tournaments that weren’t televised, and had total purses of $1 million. Hale Irwin, on the senior tour, was the first player to surpass $2 million in earnings in a season. Greg Norman may have just surpassed Tom Kite as the all-time leading money winner, with under $15 million in career earnings. Tiger super-charged the popularity of golf, in a way no one since Arnold Palmer had done. He brought the huge money into golf, and he certainly benefited from it, as he either won, or came close to winning practically every tournament he entered in his prime. The thing was, the money flowing into golf was for Tiger. Phil was a distant 2nd, and everyone else was distantly behind him. Now, we’re a decade past Tiger being an active force on tour, but they are still reaping the benefits of his work. There may be great players on tour, but there is a tournament every week, and mediocre players are subsidized. There is an opening for an elite tour, that brings in lots of money for the few best players. I’m not sure that LIV Golf will be that. It certainly isn’t right now, but the PGA Tour is afraid, because they know that the spigot of money is going to shut off.

  8. It’s weird that climate-deniers are also human-rights deniers. Yes, those PGA tour players that defected are in fact, trying to undermine the PGA Tour’s stability. Note that in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars the PGA generates for charity, there are sponsors, media, tournament hosts, and a plethora of other support teams that are dependent on the PGA Tour for it’s stability. This is about much more than just the PGA Tour players.

    My hope is that LIV will die a slow painful death, and take all the defectors with it.

  9. What’s even weirder is that you seem to know who the climate deniers are and what they think of the LIV Tour.

  10. Ben Hogan's Ghost

    That’s a very fair assessment from a tournament whose press conference you were thrown out of

  11. A long time ago, I used to play professional golf. Even traveled and played internationally, as was encouraged by Norman.
    To me, the Liv tour is a travesty. An exhibition match writ large. While there are most definitely changes the PGA Tour can and should make, it makes me sad to see the naked greed and lack of morals demonstrated by some of these players. But, never seeing Bryson on TV again is indeed a bonus.

  12. Players in all sports have wanted a greater share of the pie. For years the PGA thumbed their nose at the players on this topic and to this day aren’t transparent about finances. They DO great things with charity, pensions, etc and I wish they’d have handled this better, because as fans we aren’t better off with numerous diminished products. At the heart of this is that they missed the zeitgeist and didn’t align more quickly to their biggest assets, the players. I’m not saying they were all wrong, just wrong enough to make room for all this nonsense. This has been badly misplayed

    1. By the way, I think this is very even-handed Alan. It’s also true you’ve played the timing of numerous aspects of this saga to sell more books. But that’s a fair play and you haven’t been a sanctimonious bore on the subject (Chamblee and Shackelford, anyone?)….

  13. LIV was declared dead, a joke, a travesty only a few months ago. Now it has landed a pretty tidy group of players. No recent tournament in which DJ, Bryson, Reed, Sergio or Na has played in has considered them “has beens.” There is precisely no reason to view the PGA Tour as anything but what it actually is – an arrogant, manipulative, would-be monopoly. I care precisely zero about the Saudis one way or another – certainly not the connection between them and the sport of golf – but I hope LIV kicks the PGA’s butt and believe it’s off to a pretty good start in doing. Very fair article, BTW.

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