LIV Golf Is a Fast-Paced Celebration of the Rich Getting Richer
(Bloomberg) — The golfers have been called hypocrites, sellouts and traitors, while their new league has been dismissed as little more than a series of exhibition matches.
As a lifelong golf fanatic, I’ve closely followed the drama and mudslinging surrounding LIV Golf. But I needed to see it for myself. So last week, as the upstart tour began its second event, I went online and gorged myself on the controversial product at the center of golf’s civil war.
“If this is your first time, where have you been?” LIV Golf commentator Arlo White told viewers at the start of the tournament being held at the Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club outside Portland. “This is a decision I don’t think you’re going to regret.”
LIV Golf, which debuted last month in England, is golf’s biggest controversy since the Tiger Woods sex scandal. Its slogan is “golf, but louder” and its goal is to “supercharge” the sport with new formats. Backed by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, it has lured some big stars, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson, with enormous prize money and a lighter schedule. For defecting to a rival circuit, the golfers have been suspended from the PGA Tour and spent weeks awkwardly defending their decision to join a league backed by a country with a history of human rights abuses.
Not surprisingly, during the several hours I watched LIV Golf, there was no mention of the slaying of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, nor a single word about the families of 9/11 victims who protested a few miles from the golf course. Instead, I listened to the announcers go on and on about how happy the golfers were and the energy of the crowd. Every few minutes, a positive tweet about the broadcast popped up on screen.
Over the course of the tournament, I found plenty to like about LIV Golf. I saw more shots than I usually do watching a PGA Tour event on TV. There was constant action thanks to the lack of commercials and a shotgun start, a set-up in which all the players appear on the course at the same time. If I missed an exciting moment, I got caught up quickly via a frequent, fast-paced montage of highlights called “Don’t Blink.” A high-speed drone flew over the holes, creating a fun rollercoaster-like sensation. The unique format of four-man teams, with golf-themed names like Stinger and Niblicks, added an interesting subplot.
But there were also plenty of off-putting features. Segments where cameras follow the golfers on their way to the course or eating breakfast provided little insight. There was an odd interview that began with what the golfers bought in the merchandise tent. At times, the announcers and players seemed to try too hard to hype up the stakes. Golfer Talor Gooch got rightfully mocked on Twitter for saying during the broadcast that the event felt similar to the Ryder Cup, a team golf competition that’s considered one of the most electric atmospheres in all of sports.
So far, LIV Golf does not appear to have a large audience. The Portland event drew an average of about 55,000 viewers on YouTube in the first two rounds and about 93,000 for the final, according to Apex Marketing Group. A LIV Golf spokesperson said the total viewership was “significantly higher” when factoring in the audience on broadcasters outside the US and people watching the replay, but declined to give a number. For comparison, the final round of the Canadian Open on CBS last month drew an average of 2.8 million viewers. To say nothing of the millions worldwide set to tune in to next week’s British Open on the links at St. Andrews.
LIV Golf broadcasts are free online, which could help attract a younger generation of cord-cutters. But not being on a US TV network will make it hard for LIV Golf to win over many fans. The average age of a golf fan is 64, a demographic that’s often more comfortable watching sports on cable than streaming.
As I watched the end of LIV Golf’s Portland event, where the winner, Branden Grace, was showered with champagne, I couldn’t shake the feeling that something was missing. The golfers were not playing for a spot in the history books or world rankings points that determine whether they get to compete in what matters most: golf’s four majors. They were simply playing for a lot of money, a fact that the announcers mentioned ad nauseam. The winning golfer got a whopping $4 million and the winning team split $3 million. It was hard to get excited about millionaire golfers competing for a few million dollars more. And because there’s no cut, everyone got paid handsomely, no matter how poorly they played.
That included Pat Perez, who shot an embarrassing 80 in the final round.
“He’s in store for a $750,000 check!” LIV Golf announcer Jerry Foltz said of Perez. “In addition to what he makes in the individual competition!”
The other LIV Golf announcers laughed. I wasn’t amused.