BEDMINSTER, NJ — Brooks Koepka, the four-time major golf champion, was riding in a golf cart on Saturday with his wife, Jena Sims, sitting in his lap, both laughing as the cart headed out to the golf course.
It was a beautiful snapshot of summer in New Jersey.
But what sets this scene apart is the fact that Koepka was about two minutes from the tee shot in the second round of the LIV Golf event at Trump Bedminster Golf Club. Typically, preparing for the first shot at a professional golf tournament is tense, anxious, and filled with pressure. After all, a seven-figure salary is at stake.
The light-hearted, though fun and harmless, Koepka-Sims cart ride underscored the impact of nine-figure guaranteed contracts won by top players on the Saudi-backed LIV golf tour. Koepka reportedly received more than $100 million to join the breakaway circuit.
No wonder he and his wife were laughing.
As LIV Golf wrapped up its third event this year on Sunday, there was an unmistakable carefree air to the business, a sense that everyone had already gotten their money’s worth. That’s because dozens did, and even the player who finished last was guaranteed a $120,000 payout (with the top players’ travel and accommodation reimbursed).
Henrik Stenson won the tournament and won $4 million.
Yet despite all the attention to lavish prize money, the LIV Golf experience was illuminating and uplifting to professional golf in other less stingy ways. The Friday-Sunday vibe in northwest New Jersey was decidedly younger, less stuffy and clearly more open to experimentation than on the established PGA Tour. This meant high-energy music even as golfers tried to execute devilish putts or tricky chips. “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” by the Beastie Boys serenaded Dustin Johnson (initial payment of $125 million) at high volume as he departed on the first start Sunday.
His shot landed in a bunker.
But many fans felt energized by the surroundings.
“You go to a traditional golf tournament and they constantly tell you to shut up,” said Patrick Shields, who lives in Hackensack, NJ, off the 16th tee. “It’s a sporting event, right?”
LIV Golf volunteers on the course, however, carried crowd control signs intended to calm fans, as is also customary on the PGA Tour. The signs, held above the head, read “Zip it” or “Shhhh”.
Although, equally relevant, the volunteers never had to deal with large crowds. Attendance for Sunday’s final round was significantly improved from the meager gatherings that took place for the first two rounds – there were often only around 30 people around a green – but the total number of fans on the ground Sunday was no more than several thousand. .
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of the new Saudi-funded LIV Golf series has resurfaced long-standing questions about the moral obligations of athletes and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what you need to know:
An average PGA Tour event draws around 20,000 fans a day. LIV Golf officials declined to release attendance figures. Tellingly, a weekend pass for the event could be purchased for $2 on the secondary ticket market. The rebel circuit’s main financial backer, 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 prepared to land his first shot, he was heckled by someone who shouted, “Do it for the Saudi Royal Family.”
Overall, the new tour also lacks, so far at least, enough high-profile golfers to attract a large crowd. Mickelson sucks, but limited as he has played the worst golf of his illustrious career since opting to play the Rebel Tour. And after Koepka, Johnson, a few golfers who overshot their bonuses and Bryson DeChambeau, who is also struggling to wrestle, the average golf fan looking at the rankings this weekend might have been confused.
On the ninth hole on Saturday, Justin Harding, who is ranked 123rd in the world, hit his golf ball onto the green, where it came to rest near a gigantic concession bar. The liquor venues were well attended over the three days, and as Harding faced a difficult climb to the green, around 20 spectators emerged from the bar to stand almost beside Harding as he attempted to rescue him.
After Harding deftly threw less than a yard from the hole and started to walk away, a young boy nearby turned around and asked, “Dad, who is that?”
The father said, “I have no idea.”
This can be attributed to growing pains, and LIV Golf officials have also privately insisted that the real key to success is generating appeal for the team element of the competitions, which take place at the same time than the individual competition. They envision four-man teams, some built along nationalist lines like a collection of Australians, Japanese, English, South Africans. This could, the theory goes, help sell the LIV Tour globally.
In the small merchandise caravan in the event’s fan village, which had the laid-back county fair vibe, racks were filled with golf t-shirts, hats and shirts promoting the names of team: Aces, Crushers and Majesticks, etc.
But there is no precedent of rooting American golf fans for teams of players of any kind except at the biennial Ryder and Presidents Cup. That could change, but on Sunday, the merchandise trailer racks still had plenty of team apparel available. Top sellers had been a T-shirt embossed with “Bedminster” and a white LIV Golf cap.
It’s also likely that once the PGA Tour’s primary season ends in late August, there will be another wave of defectors on the breakaway circuit, which will continue to host ticketed events around the world through the end of October. And then all eyes will be on Augusta National Golf Club, which hosts the Masters in April. There have been signals, as there have been within the governing bodies of other major championships, that many LIV golfers may not be particularly welcome at Augusta.
Or by then, would the rival tours have entered into some kind of negotiations that could lead to coexistence?
Late Sunday afternoon, as another LIV Series event wrapped up, a cavalcade of golf carts prepared to drive players back to the clubhouse. Not everyone would laugh along the way, but no one would go home with empty pockets.