LIV Golf’s Bedminster Tournament Has Loud Music, Few People, and Lots of Talk

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BEDMINSTER, NJ — Players who ran away at the LIV Golf Invitational Series have always said their decision to join the deep-pocketed, Saudi-backed company wasn’t about the money.

“There are many facets to making this decision,” Jason Kokrak said.

“There’s a lot more to my decision to sit here than just financial opportunity and less golf,” Paul Casey said.

“No, money was not a factor,” Charles Howell III told a room of skeptical reporters this week.

So what is it? Which makes this fledgling series, steeped in controversy and determined to overthrow tradition, “the future of golf,” as Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia and others who signed it keep calling it.

This weekend’s LIV Golf event at Trump National Golf Club involved big money — a total purse of $25 million — and went to great lengths to present itself as golf with attitude. Or at least a personality. There were paratroopers before the first tee shot and t-shirt guns during breaks in the action. Music – stadium rock, Top 40, dancing – blared from the speakers throughout the course, even as players lined up tricky putts.

With a different competition format, LIV is trying to be more than a fresh coat of paint on a sport that has resisted big changes. But so far, with relatively thin crowds, modest online viewership, and much of the attention on peripheral controversies, it’s still unclear if there’s an audience for the LIV version. of the sport – or if it even matters to wealthy circuit benefactors.

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“We strongly believe that we can attract younger audiences,” said Atul Khosla, President and COO of LIV, in an interview. “…If you look at golf over the years, it has aged. I think the average audience is 65+. And I think from our perspective, when we look at launching a new product, we’ve always looked at it from the perspective of, “What are we trying to solve?” And what we’re trying to solve is that young people play golf, watch golf, become golf fans. And we think we can do that by changing the way the product is packaged.

For the uninitiated, LIV presents golf as both an individual sport and a team sport. There are 12 teams, with names such as Crushers, Majesticks and Aces. The winning four-man team this week will split $3 million; the individual winner of the event will take home $4 million. But the tournament is different from other organizations in that it features a shotgun start – each player starts their turn at the same time from a different hole on the course – there is no cut and the entire event lasts three days, not four.

Traditionalists might scoff at the format as fancy, but LIV advocates will counter that the format doesn’t try to meet the needs of traditionalists.

Mickelson is perhaps the biggest believer – and he has a million reasons to be, thanks to Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. He noted that LIV Golf intends to target a global audience with events held around the world. Players cannot jump from far stops; they are contractually obligated to show up.

“We get a ton of money, and we drop our schedule, and we commit to where they run the events,” Mickelson said.

Who are the LIV golfers? They range from famous to anonymous.

The game inside the strings would sound familiar to any golf fan, but format and delivery are the biggest differences.

“First, it’s not a 12-hour day, having to watch golf all day. You have a 4 1/2 hour window,” Mickelson said. “Secondly, when I think a streaming partner comes along, I think it’s going to revolutionize the way golf is seen because you won’t have ads and you’ll have shot after shot after shot and that will capture the attention of this younger generation for the duration.”

The Bedminster event aimed for a festival atmosphere, with a stage set up for a Chainsmokers concert at the end of Sunday’s finale.

“We look at this course as our stadium, and the things that you might experience in a stadium or an arena, how can we best bring those things to a golf course?” said Khosla, a former executive for the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers and before that the Chicago Fire of MLS.

With dripping taps and easy-to-find drinks throughout the course, the vibe was light from tee to green. Fans are close to the action – “Nice shot, Phil,” said a fan near the 14th green, “you just cost me $20” – but crowds in Bedminster were rarely two deep, even around the players the most popular.

Sometimes the LIV product can just sound like golf with a soundtrack. Despite the big names that LIV officials have drawn from the PGA and European tours – the 48-player field this weekend included 11 top champions – the field was still an uneven mix of who’s who and who’s-that of the world of football. golf.

Measuring its popularity is tricky, in part because the startup doesn’t seem to care about traditional metrics in these early stages. Unlike other professional golf events, there are no corporate logos or on-course signage. While LIV Golf’s social media accounts are active, there is no TV rights deal or streaming ads.

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Fewer than 1,000 people were simultaneously watching the Facebook Live stream for much of the first two rounds this weekend, while LIV Golf’s YouTube channel was at or above 60,000 viewers for much of Saturday’s second round. On the course, there were a lot less people. Event officials have not announced attendance, although most estimates suggest only a few thousand spectators. Tickets were selling for $75 a day, but could be purchased on the secondary market for $1 each (plus a $5.05 fee through StubHub).

Meanwhile, with its controversial Saudi backing, alliance with former President Donald Trump – whose courses will host two LIV events – and the peril it poses to the professional golf establishment, the competition proper has drawn little attention through three events. (Henrik Stenson, who lost his Ryder Cup captaincy after joining LIV, leads this weekend’s event through two rounds; the first two events were won by South Africans Charl Schwartzel and Branden Grace. )

The days leading up to the Bedminster event were overshadowed by Trump and the families of 9/11 victims protesting the LIV Golf events because of Saudi benefactors. Friday afternoon, a few hundred spectators surrounded the 10th tee to see Mickelson start his round. As the golfer approached his ball, someone shouted, “Do it for the Saudi Royal Family!” and Mickelson quietly backed away. He regrouped and hit his shot into a bunker as a member of staff approached the fan and issued a warning.

But most of the fans strolling through Trump’s Bedminster Club were supporting the assembled golfers, raising cameras in the air to record tee shots, shouting encouragement for the big drives, studying the giant leaderboards along the course and trying to make sense of the format.

The team element might take time for golf fans to digest, but players cited it repeatedly as part of the call. “I love being able to look at this leaderboard and not only see my name, but also look up my guys,” said golfer Patrick Reed.

LIV officials believe the format is the draw, but it’s also what could keep LIV players from performing on the biggest stages in the sport. Players expressed few concerns about dropping their old tours, but many said they still hoped to be eligible for Majors and the Ryder Cup.

While a handful of players have byes in some major tournaments, others may miss out as the official World Golf Rankings have yet to decide whether they will recognize LIV golf events.

“I feel like it would be a bit crazy not to score points if we play in these big events,” Abraham Ancer said.

LIV Golf officials announced plans for the future but made no indication that they would change their competition format. The breakaway outfit has announced plans for a full 2023 season that will feature 12 teams competing in 14 events. A press release last week made no mention of the 54-hole format or shotgun tee times, but Khosla said LIV Golf is committed to its format for the time being and officials hope the ‘OWGR will recognize its events.

While many in the game worry about the upheavals fracturing the sport, players who have made the leap to LIV have said they hope the game can support both pre-existing tours and this start-up. , with its bouncy soundtrack.

“The golf landscape is looking good,” said golfer Ian Poulter.

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