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Editor's Letter

LIV Golf should not be underestimated

A rival circuit that began as a novelty is determined to be taken seriously
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Chris Trotman/LIV Golf

July 20, 2022

The 2017 film "The Disaster Artist" is the true story of an independently wealthy and eccentric aspiring actor who, in response to being rejected by Hollywood at all levels, funds and stars in his own movie. His inexperience is illustrated by bizarre decisions, like buying instead of renting all the camera equipment. Despite a highly problematic script and distressed atmosphere on set, a cast and crew of respected professionals stays on because their outsize paychecks continue to clear. The result is the worst movie ever made.

For folks who like pro golf the way it is, it’s natural to dismiss LIV Golf as similarly doomed. Just a convergence of ego and money, it’ll be a matter of time before its backers realize you can’t start at the top, and move on. So what if they’ve managed to stream some scantly attended events with 40-somethings and a few bad boys. Fifty-four holes and no cut—isn’t that the senior tour?

But LIV should not be so underestimated. They hired McKinsey & Co. and other leading consultants to vet their business model, liked the reports, so there’s a willingness to wait. They say the secret sauce is the increased revenue that comes from a fully commercialized league selling sponsorship of teams, rather than hundreds of logos scattered across individuals who may or may not play a particular event, the weekend or get airtime. Because the PGA Tour is a non-profit that benefits its members and charities, it can’t legally serve such sauce. As for the moral objections of associating with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, a year of impassioned debate about the role of sports in promoting human rights has mostly dissipated into the blunt sentiment: “We buy oil from them, so why can’t we buy golf from them?”

And therein lies a question: Are birdies a commodity whose entertainment revenues can be reliably forecasted and scaled, or is there some intangible about the game these businessmen are missing?

Many would say that intangible is open and meritocratic competition, preferably on great courses. Although the first LIV events certainly lacked that first edge—a starry eyed Pat Perez wearing a money-print shirt and sipping red wine on the eve of play doesn’t exactly scream athletic drama—it’s possible to foresee a day when the mega-contracts cease and golfers are vying to qualify for these 48-man fields, with the worst-performing getting bumped out. It would take time to materialize, if ever, but the architects of LIV have always maintained their long-term vision is flowing pathways from the major world tours with equity for all. At one point they offered to name it PGA Tour Super League, which landed like a lead balloon in Ponte Vedra. If there was this initial spirit of cooperation proffered, one wonders why divisive Greg Norman was hired as CEO.

The most recent defection is Henrik Stenson, a major champion who was also to be Europe’s 2023 Ryder Cup captain until he was stripped of the title on Wednesday. More players will follow after the FedEx Cup Playoffs play out in August. For the meantime, the pressing matters are the U.S. Department of Justice investigation into whether the PGA Tour violated antitrust law by banning players, and how the Official World Golf Ranking board decides to handle LIV tournaments. These represent LIV Golf’s best chances for wins.

Yet the most important ruling lies outside the realm of law. Will the United States golf market, the biggest in the world, support LIV with companies that buy space on golfers’ sleeves and media that cover its tournaments?

A source close to LIV is surprised by all the roadblocks they’ve encountered. Jay Monahan doesn’t answer their letters, the majors aren’t giving them credentials, vendors who rent tents and furniture for tournaments won’t fill their orders. The way they see it, they’ve worked hard to convince men like Yasir Al-Rumayyan and Majed Al Sorour to invest a billion-plus dollars into the game that will trickle wide. They tell the story of how Yasir Al-Rumayyan's son fell off a horse when he was 10 and broke his arm, and how that injury led to a love of golf and a revelation that this game could be enjoyed by the whole family. Fast-forward to now, and these men are motivated by the investment return as well as the exciting prospect of changing the course of history of a sport.

Another Disaster Artist? With each new big actor that signs on, it seems less so.