I’ve burned a lot of bandwidth lately talking about amateur golf, so I thought I’d close out this mini-camp with the antithesis of the amateur game, the LIV Tour. It occurred to me the other day that with all the drama and war games surrounding LIV, the business model, format, and general vibe have been totally overshadowed by the likes of Greg Norman and Phil Mickelson crashing their PGA TOUR legacy. So let’s take away all the personal bitching and moaning and look at the actual LIV game plan.
LIV, which many people say is a wordplay on the old school and stodgy PGA TOUR, is the Roman numerals for 64 (look it up for yourself, I’m not your Latin teacher). That’s because every weekend tourney is 54 holes over three days. You’ll immediately notice that this is a round shorter than the standard 72, so the Thursday round is toast.
Golf: Spectator Sport or Spectacle?
Remember when you could go to a Cowboys or Knicks game and talk to the guy beside you during timeouts? Back in the day, for all you young’uns, sports marketing respected your attention span enough that they didn’t feel the need to entertain you non-stop. Golf and tennis are the last major sports without bad music and those tragic kiss cams and whatnot to keep you in your seats during breaks (when you should be spending money on an overpriced hotdog). (But I am starting to change myself…maybe I do want live music + golf + whiskey + I digress).
But LIV has gone down the road of arcade games and piped in music along the course. No dancing girls yet, but the season is young and the Saudi financial backers are conversative. So there’s that chasm between them and the old guys in day-glo vests holding the QUIET signs on a PGA course.
But back to the game itself. LIV players are on teams, kind of like a low-budget Ryder Cup. There are no cuts, and everybody gets to take home a rather aggressive prize. Here’s how that works.
Every LIV tournament can field up to 48 golfers on 12 teams. You will recall that over 100 players in the PGA TOUR can start, but only 65 (+ ties) make the weekend cut. I can see how for a guy just getting started, a no-cut format and a guaranteed payday are pretty damned attractive.
Anyway, it’s stroke pay for all three days. The lowest score wins. Team captains draft their players every week, and the top two scores from the first two rounds count. For the final round, the top three scores tally up with the previous days’ totals to figure out who wins.
The final tournament of the season is for the championship. This is a four-day event with seeded teams, and it’s match play instead of stroke play. It’s elimination play until the final round, when the best team wins.
Where’s the Money?
Here’s how the cash breaks down for a regular LIV event. In London last year, the purse was $25 million. If you’re keeping score at home, that’s the 2023 purse for the Player’s Championship, the richest loot bag in the PGA TOUR (until now).
Of that $25 million, $20 mil is split between the 48 golfers, and the top three teams split the remainder. The winner gets $4 million, and last place gets $120,000. The winning team gets $3 million on top of that, second place gets $1.5 million, and third gets half a million. So in LIV, the worst player in the worst team in the field gets to go home with $120k. Again, you can see how the non-elites might think this isn’t a bad gig. And really, wouldn’t you rather play in Singapore than Nicholasville, KY (Barbasol Championship), where the total purse is a paltry $3.8 million?
Why the PGA TOUR Is in Such a Baggy Boxers Twist About the LIV Tour
Last February, at Tiger’s Genesis tournament in LA, all the best players had gathered, per usual, at this mini-major. The undercurrent and the gossip wasn’t, “Would Tiger play?” but whether it was true that a rival league to the PGA TOUR was about to announce itself.
The rumors had been swirling for months, but that was nothing unusual. Upstart leagues have been batting at the PGA TOUR ramparts for decades, but this one felt different. What the locker room whispers missed was that Greg Norman was leading the charge, that the Saudis were bankrolling the league, and that they had more or less solid commitments from 24 players already.
The thing that the players did know was that no matter the details, signing up with another league would suspend players from any PGA TOUR event—not just tournaments, but participation in the lucrative FedEx Cup. Another thing they didn’t know was that Phil Mickelson was fully on board with the new venture. Given Mickelson’s public image and his status on the TOUR, this one would reverberate hard… despite his spiraling meltdown based upon the breaking stories by Alan Shipnuck.
A Quick Overview
In case you’ve been in a coma, here’s what happened. Alan Shipnuck was about to wrap up a biography on Mickelson, in which he quoted Phil as saying the Saudis were:
scary m*****rs… We know they killed [Washington Post scribe and US resident Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider [joining the upstart league]? Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA TOUR operates.
Who won Genesis? Who cares—the cat was out of the LIV tour bag, and the players who had pre-committed backed out, including Bryson DeChambeau and Justin Thompson. Rory McIlroy went loud and proud in his support of the PGA TOUR, and most members wouldn’t touch LIV with a ten-foot putter. One of the few exceptions was Lee Westwood, who admitted he’d already signed an NDA with LIV.
LIV reportedly offered Tiger a cool billion to play, but he clearly:
- Doesn’t need another billion dollars
- Isn’t what he used to be
- Has to protect his legacy
Besides, he’s too busy fighting an ex-girlfriend in court to go play golf in Australia (in which his whole story began BTW).
PGA TOUR Is a Textbook Example of a Monopoly
The PGA TOUR is real clear that players on the tour are not allowed to play in other leagues. And until now, there hasn’t been any public pushback (except Mickelson, for the most part). The tour rules are also pretty clear that members have to request a formal release to play in a tournament that conflicts with one on their schedule, and suspension is the punishment.
So the minute of the shotgun start on the first LIV event in London, PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan dropped the bomb. All these players were suspended, meaning that they lost tour eligibility, including the starter-level tours and those for seniors and outside the US. Lots of these guys resigned before they could get thrown out. So they’ve lost FedEx standing, sponsor’s exemptions, and past champion status for entry in future events.
Besides his scorched-earth response to players’ defections, Monahan has responded to LIV by announcing a raft of shiny new toys to keep the players in line. They’ve boosted purses across the board and signed a deal with the DP (Dubai Ports) World Tour to partner (they’re calling it a “strategic alliance”) to allow easier access to a PGA card for the top players in DPWT, starting in 2024.
LIV Players Are Going to the Masters
Besides Mickelson and Westwood, several other top-tier players have joined LIV: Brooks Koepka, DeChambeau (who had already actually signed with LIV when it all went to hell at Riviera), Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Louis Oosthuizen, and lately, Dustin Johnson, Henrik Stenson, and Cameron Smith.
Aside from Smith, Dustin Johnson, and maybe Brooks, I wouldn’t say the other players are a huge loss to the PGA TOUR. Most of the younger ones have already been overshadowed by the Jordan Speiths and Scottie Schefflers of the game. The European Ryder Cup had tagged Stensen as the captain of their team but kicked him out when he announced he had joined LIV.
Did you know that the Masters is not a PGA TOUR event? Teasing their independence from the PGA TOUR, the Committee has invited LIV players to the 2023 tournament. It’s the only time you’ll get to see Mickelson, Thomas, Smith, et al. with their former colleagues this year.
But LIV Might Be Losing People’s Attention
Truth be told, it might be the only time you get to see them, period. LIV is struggling to get a lot of mainstream airtime. You can live stream events on LIVGolf.com, YouTube, or Facebook. It ain’t exactly Jim Nantz and Nick Faldo, and that’s where LIV may run into trouble. If it’s hard to watch, who’s going to care once the brouhaha goes away?
I get that Saudi cash is endless (listen to my podcast, #BDE, to hear more about the world of energy and where the Saudi’s sit…currently in the driver’s seat), but nobody is going to bankroll a business venture nobody cares about. They may have thought that they could get a foothold with Amazon’s new sports deal, but they jumped into bed with CBS, ESPN, and NBC in a nine-year deal to broadcast PGA TOUR events.
I’m not sure what the end game is for LIV; they’re suing the PGA TOUR, and the PGA TOUR is countersuing for what’s basically tortious interference on both sides. I imagine the whole thing would smell better for LIV if the Saudis weren’t involved—and if there weren’t a certain amount of PGA TOUR schadenfreude for Mickelson losing his boy-next-door facade in such a public smackdown. If nothing else, it’s textbook stuff for a business 101 class—monopolies, investment, marketing, and contract law all rolled into one.