Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
PLAYA DEL CARMEN, Mexico — Charles Howell III might be the nicest guy in all of professional golf, a God-fearing, soft-spoken, painfully polite, self-described golf nerd. Howell had a long, successful, very quiet career on the PGA Tour, making more than 450 cuts and $42 million. He worked so hard, and went about his business with such quiet humility, his colleagues were universally delighted when he won at Sea Island in 2018, only the third tour victory of his career and his first in 11 years. Last year, like many working stiffs in their early 40s, Howell changed jobs, taking a spot with LIV Golf.
The controversial breakaway league is chock full of rascals, scoundrels, muckrakers and shit-stirrers. It can’t be an accident that LIV has attracted the most polarizing, piquant personalities in the game; take a bow Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Bryson DeChambeau, Ian Poulter and Pat Perez, to say nothing of Greg Norman. Last year, LIV thrived on controversy, its players fueled by grievance and self-righteousness as they were excoriated for throwing in with a disruptor funded by a Saudi regime that has brutally suppressed dissent among its citizens, including the grisly assassination of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi. The launching of LIV was the biggest story in sports, featuring Shakespearean themes such as greed, vengeance and betrayal. But a worldwide professional tour cannot subsist solely on buzz. In the battle for the soul of professional golf, it is now “product against product,” to quote PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan.
With this as the backdrop, Howell was the perfect winner for last week’s season-opening tournament, LIV Golf Mayakoba. On a firm, fast, tight, twisty, windy course that long bedeviled PGA Tour players, Howell played the first 10 holes of the final round in seven under par, roaring to an insurmountable lead. His bogeyless 63 was indisputably great golf, delivered with clinical professionalism. It’s hard to imagine anyone is mad at Howell, who was gracious and even a little overwhelmed after his first professional victory in five years. In the concurrent team competition, Howell led the Crushers to a lopsided victory, aided by a strong showing from teammate Paul Casey (fourth place) and good-enough play from Capt. DeChambeau (24th). (Anirban Lahiri’s first-round 70 also helped the cause.) Howell, a teetotaler, didn’t exactly look comfortable during the champagne-soaked podium ceremony, but the top three teams were quite spiffy in their matching uniforms. If you looked closely, you might have spotted the identical Rolexes that DeChambeau recently gifted to his players, in Crusher gold and blue.
LIV is counting on the team component to be a differentiator in its product. All week at Mayakoba, there was talk about team practice rounds, team dinners, team training sessions, team bonding. “It kind of feels like I’m in college again,” said Howell, everybody’s All-American at Oklahoma State. The team uniforms were symbolic of the player buy-in. In fact, the week began with the juicy news that one of LIV’s marquee players, Dustin Johnson, had parted ways with Adidas after 15 years; DJ wanted the company to sponsor his three teammates, the 4 Aces, including Reed, one of the tour’s bad boys. It didn’t happen.
Around LIV, 2023 is referred to as Year 1, and last season’s truncated eight-tournament schedule as a bonus year. “We were flying the plane and building it at the same time,” says Jane MacNeilie, LIV’s senior vice president of player communications. To get things off the ground, LIV covered its players’ (and caddies’) travel expenses and twice supplied pimped-out 747s to ferry folks from tournament to tournament. (The circuit’s primary benefactor is His Excellency Yassir al-Rumayyan, the governor of the Saudi Public Investment Fund, who is often referred to simply as The Investor. When social media was flooded with images of players carousing on the planes, The Investor was livid about the decadence on display.)
In the quest to build a more self-sustaining business, LIV has off-loaded all of the travel costs to each team, though, recognizing the tour is still in its early days, it did supply a stipend for this season. (The plan is to abolish the stipend beginning in 2024.) Players still keep the individual money they win—in Howell’s case, that was a tidy $4 million—but the $3 million for the team victory goes into the Crusher coffers, not the players’ pockets. Each player is paid an annual salary by the team, and at year’s end bonuses and/or profit-sharing is a possibility. But that depends on how much the team earns and how much it spends, which has brought class wars to LIV. Every team has to decide what it will cover for players, families and caddies. One player, who requested anonymity, said, “There is already tension. This week some caddies flew economy and are staying at a motor inn, while [the loopers from Brooks Koepka’s Smash] flew business class and are staying at the [swank] Rosewood.” The Smash is giving team members a set amount that can be spent however they want, but if a player burns through this allowance, he is on the hook for his expenses for the rest of the season.
Anirban Lahiri, Paul Casey, Bryson DeChambeau and Charles Howell III and caddies of Crushers GC celebrate their team victory on Sunday at Mayakoba.
Meanwhile, the 4 Aces continue to live large, especially Johnson and Perez, whose wives love to flaunt the conspicuous consumption on their Instagrams (and I dare you to google Reed’s living-room furniture). Last year, the 4 Aces won the team component five times, including the season-ending $50 million extravaganza at Doral. But one member of the squad, Talor Gooch, is now a RangeGoat. I asked Capt. Johnson if Gooch was fired or traded. “All of the above,” he said with a laugh. Peter Uilhein came aboard, which he likened to being drafted by the Yankees; it was said with a little bit of a knowing smile, which raises the cringiness. Perez was asked if his team would be more thrifty now that LIV is no longer footing all the bills. “No,” he said. “I mean, I traveled on my own for 25 years and I did it one way, and I don’t see it changing with the way it’s going.” In fact, each of the 4 Aces flew private to Mayaboba. And separately. There has been talk about trying to rendezvous and coordinate the jet(s), but Collin Yost, the 4 Aces team manager—yes, you read that correctly—says, “I don’t think there’s a plane big enough. Do you know how much luggage these guys travel with?” Throw in the various entourages and Yost says, “We’d need a plane for 40 people.”
In addition to Yost, the 4 Aces have a self-described “principal” in attorney David Cornwell, a term cribbed from F1. “I have the same responsibilities as a team president in the NFL,” Cornwell says. One of his mandates is to generate revenue, but individual endorsement deals are no longer a thing on LIV; all deals will be collective, covering four players, with the money going to the team. (Already negotiated individual contracts are still being honored, which is why some players have brand logos on their sleeves; while Koepka wore shirts that were the same color as his teammates, his were festooned with Nike swooshes instead of the team logo.) Making the teams profitable is a big part of the LIV business model, as it owns 75 percent of each franchise; the rest of the equity goes to the captain and perhaps another key player. The goal is to sell each franchise to a bored billionaire or a multinational company, generating a windfall for the tour and the players.
Now that the LIV model is more baked-out, other changes are afoot. At the end of this season, the bottom four players on the money list will be “relegated” to the Asian Tour’s International Series and anywhere else they can get starts. One spot will be taken by the top finisher on the International Series and the other three from a Q School that is coming in November at a venue TBA. Its field, projected to be up to 130 players, will be drawn from the World Ranking, the World Amateur Golf Ranking and categories that include winners on major tours and members of the most recent Presidents and Ryder Cup teams. There will also be a very public transfer portal in which teams can trade, cut and recruit players, which should lead to some melodrama and bitchiness.
LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman was on hand in Mexico for the start of the 2023, but didn't have any formal interviews with the press.
Last week, LIV got some good news when the PGA of America made official what has long been obvious, that LIVers will not be barred from competing in the PGA Championship. (The other three major championships had already declared as much.) Any day now, arbiters in the U.K. will rule on whether the DP World Tour can bar LIV golfers; if not, that will reshape the professional golf landscape in a profound way. LIV continues to go back and forth with the governing board of the World Ranking in an effort to get points for its events; its chances improved markedly when Monahan and DP World Tour CEO Keith Pelley recused themselves from the review process in December, though it’s not clear what took them so long to acknowledge such a glaring conflict of interest. A ruling is expected in July. Clearly, the season ahead will bring more off-the-course headlines and controversy, though LIV is attempting to rein in Norman (above), who did not speak with reporters at Mayakoba. As one LIV executive recently put it, “Every reporter wants Greg to escalate things and he always takes the bait. It turns into, ‘F--- me? No, f--- you!’ He almost can’t have a conversation without returning fire. Does this escalation behoove us? Clearly not. We’re trying to turn down the temperature.”
The insidious thing about sportswashing is that it works because fatigue sets in; across a full week of press conferences at Mayakoba, I didn’t hear one question about Mohammed bin-Salman or Saudi Arabia’s record on human rights or anything related to geopolitics. That’s good for LIV, clearly, but if golf becomes the sole focus, this new super league will finally have to stand on its own merits. Last year, the tour went all-in with superstars who each come with considerable baggage. Who could have guessed that squeaky-clean Charles Howell III would suddenly emerge as the man of the moment?