The consensus seems to be that Prince Mohammed bin Salman and the Saudi Kingdom are using LIV Golf to improve their image (“sportswashing”). If that’s the case, they have failed completely. Regardless of whether LIV survives in the long term, the high-profile names and exorbitant sums being paid have dramatically increased public attention to the human rights record and various crimes committed by the Kingdom.
Perhaps the Prince should have taken a page from organized crime, where maintaining a low profile was always the best bet for successfully conducting unsavory business (it certainly didn’t end well for John Gotti, who’s penchant for notoriety accelerated a trip to the federal pen).
In any event, bin Salman has chosen to double down in the public eye, allowing Greg Norman to fill the pockets of professional golfers with a seemingly endless supply of money. Based on reported estimates, signing bonuses paid to PGA Tour and DP World Tour players are rapidly approaching $1 Billion. While this may only be petty cash in Saudi Arabia, it is still a pretty big number for the rest of us.
Now that two LIV events have been played, the time is right to take a look at the golf itself.
Is it right to blame the players for accepting Saudi largess? After all, they themselves are not out killing reporters (although I’m sure it’s crossed a few minds here and there). Attorneys often represent clients who are guilty of terrible crimes. Should PGA professionals be held to a higher standard? When a journeyman pro like Pat Perez is suddenly offered a chance to “hit the lottery,” perhaps he should be allowed to cash his ticket without feeling any guilt.
And why should it matter to anyone if the Kingdom is getting a commensurate return on their hefty golf investment from a business standpoint? The PGA Tour has been the primary beneficiary of the increased media attention that LIV has brought to the game—while at the same time laying claim to the moral high ground.
The ultimate fate of LIV Golf will be decided by the fans. Should the golf enthusiast worry about where the money came from when choosing whether or not to attend an event? And will potential viewers stop to consider the rights of women in Saudi Arabia before searching YouTube to catch some of the action?
It would seem like a lot to overcome, but if LIV can deliver quality shot making and magical moments that build to dramatic Sunday finishes, Norman’s vision has a pretty good chance to succeed—in spite of the odious baggage it carries.
The entertainment value of a professional golf event hinges almost exclusively on the caliber of play and level of competition. Since LIV players are precluded from competing on other Tours, major championships offer the only opportunity to gauge their level of play.
Of the 48 players who competed at Pumpkin Ridge in Portland for the second LIV event, 15 were in the field at The Country Club for the U.S. Open in June. Of the 15 who qualified, 5 made the cut–and none finished among the top 20. Not surprisingly, Dustin Johnson was the best at 4 over par (T24). Richard Bland, formerly of the DP World Tour, finished at 8 over par (T43). Patrick Reed, LIV’s most recent big-name addition, came in at 10 over par (T49). Two of the most high-profile prizes—Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau—ended at 12 and 13 over par respectively (outside the top 50). Phil, Sergio, Louis Oosthuizen, Brandon Grace and Kevin Na failed to make the cut.
Success at the highest level of golf demands extreme focus, and coping with the media frenzy surrounding LIV undoubtedly affected their play–perhaps it will be a different story for The Open Championship at St. Andrews next week. Tiger’s presence will also draw much of the attention away from LIV, although the big names will certainly feel additional heat to deliver a strong performance.
Pumpkin Ridge is home to two solid tracks deigned by Bob Cupp; Ghost Creek (74.5 USGA Rating) and Witch Hollow (75.6 Rating). For the LIV event, a combination of the two courses was used to push the total yardage to 7,641 and provide a stiffer test.
Brandon Grace claimed the top spot at -13 with Carlos Ortiz as runner-up at -11. Of the 48 players in the field, 15 finished under par. Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed came in at -9 (T3), with Bryson DeChambeau at -2 (10th). Brooks Koepka finished at even par (T16), while Sergio and Phil struggled, finishing at +4 and +10 respectively.
While Dustin and Patrick Reed played solid golf at a quality venue, the field for the second LIV event lacked depth and offered few opportunities to generate excitement. Rumors continue to fly about additional players who are eyeing the money, so perhaps the third event at Trump National Bedminster will offer something more.
While no cut, guaranteed cash and minimal competition are no doubt highly attractive to many, the top echelon players face a heavy decision regardless of how much up-front money they receive. Participation in LIV events currently secure no World Golf Ranking points, the primary criteria for gaining entrance to major championships. And winning Majors, along with PGA and DP World Tour wins, are the main basis on which a player is ranked among the all-time greats of the game.
Not everyone is driven by an intense desire to attain greatness, and for many the opportunity has already passed them by. But there are currently an extraordinary number of highly talented young players with a chance at golf immortality, and it will be interesting to see what choices they make.
At the LIV press conference prior to last week’s event in Portland, Brooks Koepka was asked about a report that tournament prize money would be deducted from his signing bonus. His response was “No, I don’t know—it’s irrelevant.”
Irrelevant? When a $4-million first place check becomes “irrelevant,” there is something wrong with that picture. It would seem that a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame may no longer carry much relevance for Brooks as well.