Sports

For 2022, LIV Golf Was the Story

Golf is an individual sport, so any year-end reflection is going to be about the people who stood out.

But this year many of the top names who defined the year in golf are past their prime or don’t play professionally.

Pride of place goes to Greg Norman, the former world No. 1 and two-time major champion whose last PGA Tour win came 25 years ago at the 1997 NEC World Series of Golf. In that victory, Norman beat a young Phil Mickelson, who was just at the start of his career that would include six major championships and more than double the PGA Tour victories of Norman.

Now the pair are linked in the creation of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf and roiling the established PGA and DP World Tours. LIV made headlines as much for paying golfers tens or hundreds of millions of dollars to join the league as it did for the source of the support, Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund.

Add to that a rollout and public relations campaign that was bumpy — including one golfer who took $200 million to join LIV, while saying their move was to grow the game — and it made for a very unexpected year.

“Golf was puttering along in its normal boring sport way, and then everything exploded,” said Alan Shipnuck, whose book “Phil: The Rip-Roaring (and Unauthorized!) Biography of Golf’s Most Colorful Superstar” and subsequent reporting for The Fire Pit Collective, a golf news site, was at the center of the story. “This was the most fascinating and chaotic season in golf history. The gentlemen’s game has never seen this kind” of news conference sniping.

The league brought fresh attention to the human rights records of Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s crown prince. It also held several events at golf courses owned by former President Donald J. Trump, who didn’t shy away from criticizing the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson was paid a reported $200 million to join LIV Golf.Credit…Patrick Smith/Getty Images

While a rival golf league had been talked about for years, just as LIV was set to start at the beginning of the year, Shipnuck published an interview with Mickelson on The Fire Pit Collective that criticized the Saudi government over its human rights record.

“Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?” Mickelson said. “Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates.” He joined LIV in June.

From that moment, the story on the men’s and women’s game has been Saudi money and LIV Golf.

It overshadowed Rory McIlroy becoming only the second player to win both season-long events on the PGA and DP World Tours in the same year. Henrik Stenson, who now plays on LIV, was the first in 2013.

It put the game’s administrators, Jay Monahan, commissioner of the PGA Tour; Keith Pelley, chief executive of the DP World Tour; and Peter Dawson, chairman of the Official World Golf Ranking, front and center.

It spilled over to women’s golf, where talk focused on what might happen if the Saudis took a similar interest in top L.P.G.A. players. (The consensus has been Saudi money would decimate a tour that doesn’t have the financial reserves or lucrative television rights to fend off a rival league buying up players the way the PGA Tour has.)

And it got young professional and amateur players thinking about their future in professional golf after a few unproven players — namely the 2019 and 2021 U.S. Amateur Champions Andy Ogletree and James Piot and a top-ranked college player Eugenio Chacarra — took LIV money and bypassed the traditional route of trying to make their way on the PGA or DP World Tours.

“I spoke to some friends and coaches who said if LIV contacts you go there,” said Filippo Celli, who won the silver medal as the low amateur at this year’s British Open and is trying to play his way onto the DP World Tour.

“You go there and even if you finish last in the tournament you can earn $150,000, which is a lot of money, especially at 22 years old,” he said. “When you’re young you’re thinking about the money. It’s normal. My dream is to play on the DP World Tour and then the PGA Tour.”

But the threat of a rival league forced changes on both of the main men’s tours. Many of those changes were announced after an August meeting of PGA Tour players in Delaware before the BMW Championship.

The increased money was the main issue, more prize money for the top players and also guaranteed minimum pay for golfers still making their way. That helped defer six-figure costs just to compete, and the money was a carrot to the elite players.

Of course, plenty of good players have not been asked to go to LIV and have said they are not interested. Sam Ryder, who has played on the PGA Tour for six seasons, is one of them.

“I’m not on the players council of the PGA Tour,” he said. “I’ve been trying to stay in my lane and play good golf. I’ve not been concerning myself too much with all that’s been going on. I just know that everything will sort itself out.”

His playing status on the PGA Tour has earned him a new multiyear sponsor this year: Ryder, the transportation company. “Both Ryder and Sam Ryder remain committed to the PGA Tour,” said J. Steve Sensing, president of supply chain solutions for Ryder System.

Some of the top players have not been as politic in their rhetoric. McIlroy, who reclaimed the world No. 1 spot this year, became the de facto player-defender of the PGA Tour. He and Tiger Woods were at the center of the meeting in Delaware, and he’s spoken forcefully in defense of the tour. Recently, McIlroy and Woods called for Norman to step down as LIV commissioner as a necessary first step in negotiations.

Dustin Johnson was reportedly paid up to $150 million to join LIV Golf.Credit…John David Mercer/USA Today Sports, via Reuters

But there are knock-on effects of losing older but well-known players, like the future of PGA Tour Champions. It is where many of the game’s greats go to play when they turn 50. Each year the tour gets marquee players who are suddenly relevant again. This year, it was Padraig Harrington, a three-time major winner and Ryder Cup captain, who won four times on the Champions Tour.

Yet some of the first players who went to LIV were close to Champions Tour eligibility, including Lee Westwood, Henrik Stenson, and Ian Poulter, with players like Sergio Garcia and Paul Casey not too far behind them. It’s those big names that sell tickets.

At a news conference in August for a Champions Tour event in Jacksonville, Fla., Jim Furyk, the 2003 U.S. Open champion and the tournament’s host, talked about the course and the fan experience. He even talked about Notah Begay III, a former player turned Golf Channel commentator who was returning to professional golf on his 50th birthday.

What Furyk or anyone else at the event did not talk about was the previous year’s winner: Mickelson. That victory was his third win in four starts on the Champions Tour and augured well for his transition to the tour, and for the tour itself.

But right now, the focus is on the main tours and seeing what LIV does next year. There has been little interest in actually watching LIV events. The league has no television contract and worldwide viewership numbers for streaming have declined with each event, particularly after the initial player announcements were made.

Still, the PGA Tour, which had been slow to respond at first, seems to be taking no chances. It recently hired a lobbyist in Washington who is close to Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader who hopes to become speaker when Republicans take control of the chamber in January.

“The tour has always been all powerful,” Shipnuck said. “Now there’s a competition.”

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