LIV Golf event sees sparse crowds and tense start

BEDMINSTER, New Jersey. Standing over his ball on Friday, Phil Mickelson, a prized acquisition of the new Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, made his first tee shot in the breakaway tournament at Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster.

Just as Mickelson, who reportedly received a $200 million upfront bonus for participating in the rebel tour, was about to start his swing, a fan 15 yards to his right yelled, “Do it for the Saudi royals!”

Mickelson backed away from the shot as a security officer approached the fan and told him he would be removed from the property if there was another outbreak.

Looking frustrated, Mickelson returned to his stance and finally hit the ball, which bounced 60 feet off the line and landed in a cave-like bunker. Stomping with a toy and muttering to his caddy, Mickelson started his day with a scarecrow.

The dominant slogan of LIV Golf, which is played in radio ads and displayed on giant billboards in neon letters around Trump’s field, is: “Golf, but louder.”

It is unlikely that the organizers were referring to the Mickelson episode, which took place seconds after the first LIV Golf event held in the northeast.

For most of Friday’s first round, it wasn’t loud at all. Yes, there was a lot of music playing on the court, as there were powerful speakers near the greens and football pitches. But there was no thunderous applause, the typical soundtrack for most professional golf tournaments.

The crowds at the event, the third LIV Golf tournament, were too sparse to hear any cheering coming across the field. This could be due to the fact that it was a Friday and not a weekend, but, for example, the largest crowd on the first set of the day was undoubtedly at Mickelson’s, and it was about 350 people.

And Mickelson beat next to the club’s large balcony and patio. When he got to his first green, exactly 43 people were waiting for him. While he was playing on the 18th hole, the large sumptuous box overlooking the green was empty. There were several thousand spectators around the track, but nowhere near the 20,000 who could attend an average PGA Tour event. LIV Golf officials did not release attendance figures.

During the day some of the greens were partially covered by two rows of fans, but this was rare. However, for many participants, this was not necessarily a bad thing.

Denny McCarthy, 29, from Kearney, New Jersey, was delighted with the unobstructed view of the 18th green. He planned to stay in the same place for most of the day and watch each of the 18 groups of three players play the hole.

“There’s a bear behind me and the line isn’t long either,” McCarthy said.

There were other notable moments where the atmosphere differed from that of the PGA Tour event. First, the players looked much more relaxed. In an interview, LIV Golf players talked about how the new course has helped build community spirit with extravagant nightclub pre-tournament parties and generous travel reimbursements for players’ families and caddies.

What’s more, the controversy surrounding the course, including its funding from Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund and worries that it would permanently split the respected golf ecosystem, has left LIV golfers feeling like outcasts. This gave rise to a “us versus them” mentality that was evident on Friday. As the players walked down the fairway, there was far more casual conversation between their groups than is common on the PGA Tour.

The element of team competition can be a factor. At each LIV event, 12 teams of four compete for a $3 million prize, which the winner shares equally, supplementing the golfers’ individual earnings.

“It’s a lot like playing golf in college,” said Sam Horsfield, 25, one of the youngest players in the field. “You grind every throw to help the boys.”

But in the end, there’s a primary reason LIV golfers can feel more at ease and more collaborative: every player is, in some way, guaranteed to be a winner. Unlike PGA Tour tournaments, which send half the field home without a dollar, LIV Golf tournaments have guaranteed payouts. Even the last place finisher will receive $120,000 for the three days of competition.

These payouts were made possible by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, prompting critics to accuse the players of being sold out to a country that is trying to hide its poor human rights record. On Friday, a group of family members of victims of the September 11 attacks protested near the courseclaiming that Saudi Arabian officials supported the terrorists.

But on the pitch, some fans, especially the younger ones, were fueled by the camaraderie they saw among the players.

“I love what they’re doing on social media, even that they’re enjoying the social events leading up to the events,” said John Monteiro, 30, who traveled from his home in Reading, Pennsylvania, to the tournament on Friday. “Players have more fun, and if they’re having fun, I want to go and share that vibe.”

Standing next to Monteiro was his friend Alex Kelln, 30, who lives in Rumson, New Jersey. Speaking of past PGA Tour events he has attended, Kelln said the tour had a somewhat unwelcome stigma, which he described as “You stand there and there are silent signs.”

Monteiro chimed in: “When we play golf, music comes out of the speaker, and I feel like that’s how we grew up playing golf.”

Neither Monteiro nor Kelly are worried that men’s professional golf will collapse due to a showdown between tours.

“It’s healthy competition that will ultimately make both of them better,” Kelln said.

As Monteiro and Kelln spoke, it was 90 minutes before the first shots of the day, before Mickelson’s meeting with the bully. Crowds used to be sparse and scarce at many holes.

Monteiro acknowledged that this was at the very beginning of the LIV Golf experiment. He smiled and said, “We’ll see.”