The rise of the golf rebels

LIV Golf keeps upping the stakes in its revolt against the game’s establishment


From our June 2023 issue

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Golf wasn’t supposed to be this much fun.

Now in its second season, LIV Golf keeps upping the stakes in its revolt against the game’s establishment. The two sides kept things polite at April’s Masters, where LIV’s Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka made a run at the green jacket only to finish second behind PGA Tour pro Jon Rahm. Still, there is plenty of bad blood between golf’s warring camps.

“There’s lot of animosity,” said Tiger Woods, who has ghosted ex-friends who defected to the breakaway tour. There is also a whole lot of money. Woods, still…

Golf wasn’t supposed to be this much fun.

Now in its second season, LIV Golf keeps upping the stakes in its revolt against the game’s establishment. The two sides kept things polite at April’s Masters, where LIV’s Phil Mickelson and Brooks Koepka made a run at the green jacket only to finish second behind PGA Tour pro Jon Rahm. Still, there is plenty of bad blood between golf’s warring camps.

“There’s lot of animosity,” said Tiger Woods, who has ghosted ex-friends who defected to the breakaway tour. There is also a whole lot of money. Woods, still the game’s top star at forty-seven despite injuries that have hobbled him, turned down an offer of more than $700 million to join LIV. Mickelson got a reported $200 million, while Koepka, Dustin Johnson and British Open champion Cameron Smith accepted around $100 million each. Such sums are a drop in the waterfall of wealth behind the new tour: Saudi Arabia’s $620 billion Public Investment Fund, which runs LIV Golf largely for publicity purposes. Some call it “sportswashing.” Veteran sportscaster Bob Costas calls it blood money, citing the human-rights record of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s regime. Critics dubbed LIV the Bonesaw Tour, a reference to Saudi assassins’ killing and dismembering of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Asked about that, LIV commissioner Greg Norman said, “We’ve all made mistakes.”

Want animosity? When LIV’s Patrick Reed offered PGA loyalist Rory McIlroy a handshake earlier this year, McIlroy ignored him. Reed flipped a tee at him — the golf equivalent of a cruise missile.

Pundits like me have predicted the new tour’s demise since its debut almost a year ago. Meanwhile LIV (pronounced as in “and let live”) keeps rolling merrily along, jolting a stodgy sport with events it bills as “Golf, But Louder.” LIV tournaments are three-day festivals with all the formality of a tailgate party. (The Roman numeral LIV refers to their fifty-four-hole format, eighteen fewer than usual.) Music booms. Fans line up for skills tests and putting contests. You can get a Mickelson tattoo or have a barber give you a Cameron Smith mullet. Some LIV golfers do birdie dances like NFL players celebrating touchdowns. Others wear shorts, showing enough leg to scandalize purists. Team play — Koepka leads the Smash, Bryson DeChambeau the Crushers, Sergio Garcia the Fireballs — promotes camaraderie and trash talk. Players chug drinks out of golf shoes. At one event, commissioner Norman parachuted to the first tee and tossed beers to fans.

The PGA Tour has been paying attention. To keep players from defecting, it has increased prize money, offered players a guaranteed minimum of $500,000 a year, and rolled out a Netflix reality show, Full Swing, pro golf’s answer to Hard Knocks. Woods and McIlroy are planning a Monday Night Golf series featuring team play, walk-up music and IMAX-sized TV screens. Sound familiar?

“Imitation is the greatest form of flattery,” LIV tweeted. “Welcome to the future.” Last month Norman high-fived fans at the Grange Golf Club in Adelaide, where capacity crowds thronged the first LIV event in his native Australia. When Chase Koepka, Brooks’s younger brother, made a hole-in-one, only the second ace in LIV history, spectators showered him with hundreds of plastic beer cups, many of them full. “The roars kept getting louder and louder and louder,” he said. “I smelled like beer the rest of the day.”

Koepka’s beer blizzard at a sold-out tournament — a new high point for LIV — set the scene for the new circuit’s biggest month yet. The two tours next collide at the PGA Championship in Rochester, New York, renewing the uneasy truce they observed at the Masters.

A week later, LIV will have another chance to steal the old guard’s thunder. While the PGA Tour moves on to the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas (top prize $1.56 million), LIV pros will chase a $4 million winner’s share at Trump National Golf Club Washington in Sterling, Virginia, half an hour from the White House (if your motorcade is accompanied by sirens).

In Donald Trump, LIV Golf found its ideal host.

The former and perhaps future president has been bulldozing the game’s traditions since he began buying up courses more than twenty years ago. The best presidential golfer — better than JFK, who played college golf for Harvard — obsesses over the sport and understands it well enough to win course-design arguments with renowned architect Tom Fazio.

Trump’s hellbent style suits LIV Golf to a tee. I often played with him in the early 2000s, when I worked at Golf magazine and he wanted positive reviews for his growing portfolio of courses. He was never less than great company. He takes a lusty swing at the ball and plays fast, barreling up fairways in his electric cart, driving onto the green and waving at players who salute as he plays through.

He has often been called a cheater, but Trump doesn’t cheat any more than most weekend golfers, and not only for his benefit. “You tried so hard there,” he’ll say. “I’m giving us both pars.”

He is quick with the needle. I was in mid-swing when he said, “Don’t worry about the lake on the right.” At one hole he dared “anyone anywhere” to beat his drive. When my ball got a lucky bounce and rolled a yard past his, he called it “a miracle. And I don’t want to see your underwear after that swing!”

We were playing Trump National Westchester when a camera crew appeared. “Don’t worry about them,” he said. “They’re from The Apprentice.” At the thirteenth hole, a long par-three beside a manmade waterfall, he smacked his tee shot into the water. He hit another ball. Bang — another splash. He teed up a third ball, swung harder, and finally reached the green. Technically lying five, he smiled and said, “And that’s reality television!”

When the show aired, he stepped to the tee and knocked his ball on the green.

Today, Trump is LIV’s biggest booster this side of MbS.

“A gold rush,” he calls it, predicting an “inevitable” merger between LIV and the PGA Tour, an idea the PGA Tour might entertain when Mar-a-Lago freezes over. LIV golfers got a crucial boost when administrators of the pro game’s Grand Slam tournaments — the Masters, PGA Championship, US Open and British Open — allowed them to compete in those marquee events this year. That was practically a foregone conclusion given the majors’ reverence for tradition. The 2023 Masters would have been diminished without Mickelson, Johnson, Reed and other champions including Garcia and Bubba Watson. The other majors didn’t want to snub past winners like Brooks Koepka, DeChambeau and Smith, the defending British Open champ. Yet the upstart tour is still the underdog. Its next hurdle is convincing the governors of the Official World Golf Ranking system to recognize the LIV tour. The LIVers currently earn zero World Ranking points even for victories, and those points help determine who qualifies for Grand Slam events. Without a change in World Ranking policy, the fields for future majors will be thinned while fans wonder if their champions would have beaten Koepka, Smith and company.

Even World Ranking points would leave LIV far short of parity. In January it landed a TV deal on the CW Network, but ratings are minuscule. As for talk of a merger amid back-and-forth lawsuits between the tours, Woods sees no end to golf’s civil war as long as Norman is on the other side. The two have feuded since Tiger replaced the Great White Shark atop the rankings a quarter-century ago. Before any thaw can take place, says Woods, “Greg has to go.”

That leaves LIV’s favorite politician to make a full-throated case for the rebellion.

Trump has had a bumptious relationship with the game’s ruling bodies for decades, currying favor with the PGA and the US Golf Association while ignoring traditional niceties. As president he played and promoted his own courses, teeing up with cronies and celebrities while his Secret Service detail fanned out in souped-up golf carts of their own. He canceled plans to host the 2020 G7 summit of world leaders at Trump National Doral following a backlash he blamed on “Media and Democrat Crazed and Irrational Hostility.” He was delighted when the best of his properties, the Old Course at Trump National Bedminster in New Jersey, was chosen to host last year’s PGA Championship. But PGA leaders rescinded the choice after the Capitol riots of January 6. Then the R&A, which runs the British Open, announced it would no longer consider Trump Turnberry in Scotland as a venue.

As Trump once joked on the course, “Politics and golf should never mix. Golf’s too important.”

Rejected by the game’s establishment, he cast his lot with the insurgents. “LIV has been a great thing for Saudi Arabia,” he told the Wall Street Journal, “an incredible investment. I think the publicity they’ve gotten is worth billions of dollars. It’s one of the hottest things to have happened in sports.” As for any outcry over Jamal Khashoggi’s murder, he said, “from the standpoint of Khashoggi, that has died down so much. It really seems to have totally died down.”

Last July, Trump hosted LIV’s third-ever tournament at Bedminster the week after his first wife, Ivana, was buried near the clubhouse. Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump were married there in 2009. (It may be coincidental that the Saudis’ Public Investment Fund pays the Trump Organization to use his courses and invested $2 billion in Kushner’s private equity firm.) Trump schmoozed with Tucker Carlson and Marjorie Taylor Greene during the tournament while 9/11 families outside the gates protested the Saudis’ involvement.

The stakes are higher now. The setting is better. While Trump National Washington may not quite match Bedminster as a test of championship golf, it is a solid venue despite the tacky waterfall behind the eighteenth green. More than only a former president, LIV’s favorite host is now a front-running presidential candidate with a genius for attracting attention. The Great Disruptor will relish the thought of hosting a beery bacchanal practically within earshot of Joe Biden, with crowds yelling “Get in the hole!” and “Go Phil!” and “Let’s go Brandon.”

With Trump’s support, the rebels are gaining ground.

“It’s a different golf experience,” says announcer David Feherty, the new tour’s TV voice. Thanks to team play, fan participation and LIV’s festive atmosphere, “the players are fired up in a way I didn’t really expect. It’s just more fun to be around golf these days.”

It is possible that Trump’s legal troubles could keep him away when LIV comes to Biden’s back yard. In that case Don Jr. and Eric would handle hosting duties, leading cheers and handing out beers. But the former First Golfer would hate to miss a chance to preside over the festivities, particularly now that his love for LIV might play a key role in golf’s future. Expect him to helicopter in for what stands to be the most important weekend in LIV’s short history.

For a golf tournament, it will be wild.

This article is taken from The Spectator’s June 2023 World edition. 

Kevin Cook is the author of ten books, most recently Waco Rising: David Koresh, the FBI and the Birth of America’s Modern Militias.

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