Bup in the air, missives in the mail. Thirty minutes of LIV Golf’s inaugural event had been played when a bulletin from Ponte Vedra overshadowed whatever was to come at the Centurion Club. Greg Norman stands with the bans of the PGA Tour.
The Aussie was all smiles on the 1st tee as Dustin Johnson, Scott Vincent and Phil Mickelson emerged as the lead group. Speaking before hitting the course, Norman admitted that his desire to tackle the golf ecosystem had been something of a crusade. His action was guaranteed to provoke a reaction from the PGA Tour. He duly did so.
“I was sitting in the players’ lounge earlier, figuring it all out, thinking ‘Oh my God, this is what this is about,'” Norman told official broadcasters. “Seeing the players, smelling the caddies, bringing the family members to me. I told them all, ‘This is for you and the fans.’ We’ve been trying to get this thing off the ground for three decades.
“I feel so happy for the players. I’m so glad we’ve introduced freedom of action to the game of golf. I am proud of the game of golf. We develop the game of golf. And all with a straight face. Paying exorbitant and guaranteed sums to golfers does not grow anything. It also defies any basis of competition.
Norman’s assertion – and this one is a recurring one – that “free will” has arrived in his sport is absurd. Players are indebted to LIV, their checks and by extension to the Saudi public investment fund that issues them. Show off ponies in polo shirts and pants. Norman does not advance in an altruistic mission. That he’s been kept out of the mainstream media for what should be a week to win hearts and minds is telling.
The backdrop was quite disappointing. A pale imitation of the Grenadier Guards marching band playing trumpet music while a pale imitation of the Red Arrows flew overhead. London black cabs shuttled the players to the tees for a shotgun start. At Hemel Hempstead; it is hoped that the drivers have turned off the meters.
Those owned by golf industry lawyers operate as if powered by Duracell Bunnies. Many had questioned the PGA Tour’s silence when Mickelson et al landed in the UK, but it was not until shots were hit that disciplinary action could be taken. The DP World, formerly European, Tour will have to articulate its precise position before too long.
The natural intrigue associated with the product meant that his YouTube feed regularly attracted tens of thousands of viewers at a time. The background was not so much commentary as exciting propaganda. “The first birdie in the history of LIV Golf,” Arlo White said as Martin Kaymer rolled in a putt. The rest of us have reason to wonder how the hell it came to this for Kaymer, a former world No. 1 and two-time major winner.
Later, a “sea of humanity” was depicted from the stand. There has been little humanity as 81 people were executed in a single day in March in Saudi Arabia. So far, golfers have done nothing to highlight the kingdom’s position on human rights while enjoying the perfect platform. The depressing inference is that they don’t care, an impression backed up by the reception of Mickelson and Johnson by the hierarchy of the public investment fund as they collapsed on the 18th.
Mickelson donned his own brand except for a Masters logo on a vest that will have drawn nervous looks from Augusta National. His golf was initially soft, which was at least understandable given a long absence from competition, but Mickelson recovered to open with a 69 under par. Johnson tied that score. Sergio García is half as well off.
The number of participants not being specified, we had to speculate. What followed for Mickelson and Johnson was decent enough – it should be noted that crowds on the DP World Tour are often poor – but there may not have been more than four figures to watch. Conversation with a handful of spectators did not result in a report of even one paying full price for a ticket.
It surely piqued the ego of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, those famous English golfers, to play in front of three men and a dog. Well-known faces from inside the golf industry, fascinated by what this concept really was, walked off the ropes. Perhaps the least impressive group in this whole junk business, the agents who pushed golfers into dirty business, lurked in the shadows.
Golf was like golf is, on any course. Two and a half hours for nine holes undermined any sense that LIV will oversee the game in short, crisp form. Nothing that has happened so far represents revolution. Or, indeed, that LIV simply won’t perform away from the mainstream of sports consciousness when early curiosity wanes. Charl Schwartzel leads the pack after 18 of 54 holes. The South African sits two rounds away from a $4million bounty.
As it rumbled, Rory McIlroy opened with a 66 at the Canadian Open. Matt Fitzpatrick, who couldn’t fall for Centurion despite the prospect of a huge payday in his own country, posted a 64. The inevitable feeling is that the PGA Tour matters more to those with a sporting conscience. For all their chutzpah and dollar sign attraction, that’s what LIV has to get around somehow. The first signs are not entirely promising.
It is the overall picture, that of the civil war, which dominates. “Shot just got real” is a marketing slogan of LIV. Too fair.