BEDMINSTER, New Jersey. Brooks Kepka, a four-time golf champion, rode a golf cart on Saturday with his wife, Jena Sims, on his lap, both laughing as the cart headed for the golf course.
It was a nice shot of a summer in New Jersey.
But what made this scene different was the fact that Koepka was about two minutes away from the first shot in the second round of LIV Golf at Trump Bedminster Golf Club. As a rule, the preparation for the first stroke in a professional golf tournament is tense, anxious and tense. After all, a seven-figure salary is at stake.
A carefree ride on a Koepka-Sims cart, while harmless fun, highlighted the impact of guaranteed nine-figure contracts earned by the top players on the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf Launch Tour. Koepka reportedly received over $100 million to join the breakaway scheme.
No wonder he and his wife were giggling.
When LIV Golf wrapped up its third event of the year on Sunday, the event had an unmistakable carefree vibe, the feeling that everyone had already gotten their money’s worth. That’s because there were dozens of them, and even the last-finishing player was guaranteed a $120,000 payout (with travel and lodging reimbursements for the top players).
Henrik Stenson won the tournament and earned $4 million.
However, despite all the focus on lavish prize money, the LIV Golf experience has illuminated and mentored professional golfers in other, less stingy ways. The Friday-Sunday atmosphere in northwest New Jersey was decidedly younger, less stuffy, and decidedly more open to experimentation than during the famous PGA Tour. This meant blaring energetic music even when golfers were trying to hit devilish shots or tricky moves. The Beastie Boys’ “(You’ve got to) fight for your right (to party!)” was serenaded by Dustin Johnson ($125 million down payment) at high volume as he kicked off the first match on Sunday.
His shot hit the bunker.
But many fans have felt a surge of energy in the environment.
“You go to a traditional golf tournament and they keep telling you to shut up,” said Patrick Shields, who lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, near Golf Course 16. – It’s a sporting event, right?
However, LIV Golf volunteers on the field carried crowd control placards meant to keep the fans quiet, as is the custom on the PGA Tour. The posters that hung overhead said, “Zip it up” or “Shh.”
But just as importantly, the volunteers never had to deal with large crowds of people. Attendance for the final Sunday round was vastly improved from the meager gatherings of the first two rounds—often only about 30 around the green—but the total number of fans on the ground on Sunday did not exceed a few thousand. .
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The average PGA Tour event draws about 20,000 fans daily. LIV Golf officials declined to release attendance data. Tellingly, a weekend ticket to the event could be purchased for $2 on the secondary ticket market. The main financial backing of the rebel network, which is Saudi Arabia’s Sovereign Wealth Fund, could certainly have played a role in the modest fan turnout. In the opening seconds of Friday’s event, as Phil Mickelson was preparing to throw his first punch, someone interrupted him by shouting “Do it for the Saudi royals.”
All in all, the new tour also, at least for now, lacks enough big-name golfers to draw a large crowd. Mickelson has a tie, but a limited one as he has played the worst golf of his illustrious career since deciding to join the rebellious circuit. And after Kepka, Johnson, several past-peak golfers, and Bryson DeChambeau who also struggled, the average golf fan looking at the leaderboard this weekend could be bewildering.
On the ninth hole on Saturday, Justin Harding, ranked 123rd in the world, hit his golf ball on the lawn, where he stopped near a giant bar. The places that sold alcohol were well attended for three days, and as Harding faced a difficult climb to the lawn, about 20 spectators poured out of the bar to stand almost next to Harding as he tried to escape.
After Harding deftly darted within three feet of the hole and began to walk away, a small boy turned beside him and asked, “Daddy, who’s that?”
The father said, “I have no idea.”
This can be chalked up to growing pains, and LIV Golf officials have also privately insisted that the real key to success lies in creating attraction for the team element of the competition, which takes place at the same time as the individual competition. They imagine teams of four, some of which are built along nationalistic lines, such as a gathering of Australians, Japanese, British, South Africans. According to the theory, this could help sell the LIV tour around the world.
In a small merchandise trailer in the fan village of the event, which had a casual county fair vibe, the sales racks were crammed with T-shirts, caps, and golf shirts advertising team names: Aces, Crushers, and Majesticks, etc.
But there is no precedent for American golf fans to cheer for teams or players of any kind, with the exception of the Ryder and Presidents Cups, which are held every two years. That may change, but there were still plenty of team clothes on the sales trailer racks on Sunday. The bestsellers were a Bedminster embossed T-shirt and a white LIV Golf cap.
It’s also likely that once the PGA Tour’s main season ends at the end of August, another wave of defectors to the breakaway circuit will emerge, continuing to host cash events around the world through the end of October. And then all eyes will be on the Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters in April. There were signals, as with the governing bodies of other major championships, that many LIV golfers might not be particularly welcome in Augusta.
Or would the competing tours have started some sort of negotiation by then that could lead to coexistence?
Late Sunday afternoon, as another LIV event drew to a close, a cavalcade of golf carts prepared to take the players back to the club. Not everyone will laugh along the way, but no one will go home with empty pockets.