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LIV golf

LIV Golf begins Year 3 with a 59, a late penalty, new blood, a long playoff and a stage all to itself

February 04, 2024
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Manuel Velasquez

With six words, LIV Golf’s Mayakoba champion Joaquin Niemann cut straight to the heart.

“But I’m not in any of the majors,” the Chilean star said of his maiden LIV Golf individual victory.

On a fourth trip down the 18th at the El Camaleon course at Mayakoba, Niemann drained a birdie putt to finally defeat former Masters champion Sergio Garcia and take home $4 million.

Firstly, Niemann was a tad wrong. He is in the Open Championship by virtue of winning the DP World Tour’s Australian Open in December, which secured one of three spots in the 152nd edition of golf’s oldest major. It’s also likely that he’ll eventually get into the PGA Championship via his world ranking.

Niemann’s sentiment, though, was that he had beat what is now a strong, 54-player field on a tough golf course. It represented LIV Golf’s biggest dilemma, that the league does not receive Official World Golf Ranking points, and likely won’t anytime soon. Niemann, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour, has dropped to World No. 66.

“I hope [LIV eventually received a pathway to the majors],” Niemann said. “I’m just … ready. I want to win majors, but I’ve got to get in.”

Niemann will have to keep playing events on the Asian Tour, a partner of LIV Golf, to receive OWGR points until golf’s fragmentation is sorted. The PGA Tour this week struck a deal with Strategic Sports Group to create a for-profit entity, but the involvement of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which finances LIV, is still to be determined. That was an aim of the June 6 framework agreement. Only after the PIF’s involvement with the PGA Tour will LIV have a hope of sending more of its top players, like Niemann and 2023 individual champion, Talor Gooch, to the majors.

For now, LIV has doubled down on its mission to make its product more compelling and its fields deeper. Before this week’s opener to the third season, LIV signed Masters champion Jon Rahm, his European Ryder Cup teammate, Tyrrell Hatton, Poland’s Adrian Meronk and Australia’s Lucas Herbert.

The result? Well, compare the two times LIV has gone to the Mayakoba resort in Playa del Carmen. Last year, the first visit, Charles Howell III ran away with victory at what was a lackluster season opener for the league’s second campaign. That same week on the PGA Tour, Chris Kirk ended an eight-year drought with a thrilling win over journeyman Eric Cole at the Honda Classic. Fans pointed out on social media that LIV was less compelling than a PGA Tour event that has struggled to attract the stars for several years.

This week, LIV took big strides. Sure, there was still quirkiness. Players were riding bikes from their hotel rooms to the golf course. There was an illness that affected some players, caddies and managers before the first round. Niemann, who opened the tournament with a 12-under 59, was assessed a two-shot penalty retroactively on Sunday morning from an incorrect drop in the second round.

But the final day was must-watch television for golf fans.

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Manuel Velasquez

Rahm, Garcia and 25-year-old Niemann were tied for the lead with two holes to play. Even midway through the back Sunday, reigning PGA champion Brooks Koepka and fellow major winners Cam Smith and Dustin Johnson were within four shots, alongside Hatton.

To top it off, wild weather blew into the Monterey Peninsula and forced the PGA Tour to postpone the final round of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am, clearing the stage for LIV’s Sunday spectacle.

Niemann woke up to news his four-shot lead after 36 holes had been reduced to two. That narrowed the gap for Rahm, trailing by two, to work his way into the mix with a final-round 70. The reigning Masters champion made three birdies in a row starting with the 13th to tie the lead, setting up an exciting duel with his idol, fellow Spaniard and former Ryder Cup teammate, Garcia.

Garcia had earlier thrown down the gauntlet by climbing to five under through 15 holes of his round. With a 66, Garcia grabbed the clubhouse lead at 12 under. Niemann fired an approach to close range on No. 18 to force a playoff with at Garcia.

Rahm, though, stumbled down the stretch. He pulled his tee shot on No. 17 and made bogey. On No. 18, he fatted a fairway bunker shot, all but ruling out a birdie required to join the playoff. Rahm made another bogey and fell to 10 under and tied for third place.

Rustiness aside, one thing was clear: any fears that Rahm’s reported $600 million signing bonus were going to affect his intensity were dashed in his greenside interview.

“After this bad finish, I’m going to need five minutes,” a frustrated Rahm said. “It’s a tough pill to swallow because I played so well all week.”

The 11-time PGA Tour winner, who ironically made his PGA Tour debut as an amateur at Mayakoba in 2014, assessed his first week on the league.

“It’s absolutely fantastic; you can see this atmosphere,” he said. “The music makes it a little different, and I must say team aspect is different, but something you can use as a positive and something you can use as an individual to rally.”

Rahm’s team did rally. In his pro debut, former University of Tennessee star Caleb Surratt birdied his last five holes to finish T-13 and bag a $350,000 check. He also helped Legion XIII to a $5 million team victory.

“This team was just assembled Monday and we’ve come in and made an impact and I think everybody knows we’re a force to be reckoned with,” Rahm said.

Impact is a fitting word for Rahm, who at 29 looks like his best golf may still be ahead of him. LIV got exactly what they paid for: either a reason to watch, or another reason to watch, depending on how you look at it.