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COLUMN: LIV Golf Brings PGA Tour Pain, But It Won’t Be In Vain



I couldn’t help myself.

I wouldn’t say I watched all of LIV Golf’s inaugural YouTube broadcast Thursday, but I probably had it rolling on my phone for roughly half of that shotgun-start first round from London.

Look, there’s been much consternation over the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia’s latest entry into the worldwide sporting tableau. There’s no doubt that, if you had to choose which entity would bankroll a venture in a sport you care about, the petroleum-powered Public Investment Fund would be near the bottom of your list.

And unfortunately for the PGA Tour and those in the golf industry dependent on its survival, LIV is not limited by the strictures of profitability. It appears the folks behind the PIF are willing to sink billions into this project, so it’s anyone’s guess if they ever need this thing to actually make money.

But as I watched some of the golf from the generic Centurion Club, I couldn’t help but thing that all the pain that Greg Norman and Co. have inflicted on the powers-that-be in the golf world shouldn’t be a net negative for the sport.

In the short term, it might be difficult to see that.

For one, the growing number of high-profile names that’ll join LIV Golf will bolster the new ‘league,’ for sure, but it’ll also make it more difficult for golf fans to watch their favorite male players all in one place, with the exception of major championships.

That’s a downer, particularly for those who’ve bought tickets to PGA Tour events this season, expecting to watch guys like Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Rickie Fowler, or even the increasingly-elusive Phil Mickelson. (I don’t think anyone outside of his wife Justine is that big of a Patrick Reed fan, but I thought I’d give him a mention as well. Hey, he won a major once.)

If we can zoom out to 30,000 feet, though, this could be the shakeup that men’s pro golf badly needed.

For one, the PGA Tour’s events have become more and more interchangeable and indistinguishable, with the exception of a Riviera here or a Memorial there. The shifting title sponsorships don’t help, either, as they mute the identity of many historic tour stops right from the get-go.

Beyond that, the way golf is packaged and presented for its audience remains staid. Whether it’s the redundant 72-hole stroke-play format or the sedate tone of most broadcasts, one gets the impression that no one with any power is interested in rocking that boat.

That includes the bloated PGA Tour ‘wraparound’ schedule, which pushes events from New Year’s to Thanksgiving. These guys ever hear of an offseason? By that standard, LIV’s limited (for now) schedule seems like a gift from the gods. A little scarcity never hurt anybody.

Speaking of which, full-field PGA Tour events are way too big. One of the reasons I loved attending and covering the now-defunct event in Akron is that, as a World Golf Championship tourney, there were only 70 players and they were all guaranteed to still be there over the weekend.

Striving for a perfect meritocracy is all well and good, but stars get people to buy tickets and switch on TVs. Smaller fields, with 18 fewer holes to play and no weekend cuts sounds like a winning idea for a more digestible entertainment product.

Now, beyond the golf itself, there were a few glitches in the first LIV broadcast — notably, the intro from the indoor studio was poorly-lit and echo-ridden — but once the golf started the presentation had some welcome forward momentum.

Of all the typical pro golf details LIV has tweaked, having all 54 golfers start at once didn’t immediately catch my eye as something significant, but I have to admit it imbued the proceedings with a sense of urgency often missing from PGA Tour telecasts. It might get dicey to cover in the final round, with leaders finishing essentially at the same time on different holes, but I give the shotgun-start concept a high grade.

I still don’t think the team concept has real legs, but again, it gave us something to think about other than simply which individuals are playing the best. Maybe there’s a way to fiddle with the format to make the four-man squads feel more important.

And while the Asian Tour qualifiers and other lesser lights probably aren’t long for LIV once more highly-ranked players sign on for the next event in Oregon, I do applaud the attempt to spread the love to developing golf nations. It’s still quite the Western Hemisphere-dominated sport at the highest level, but getting some international exposure for golfers from, say, Thailand, could inspire more young athletes from there to pick up clubs.

Still, the biggest thing going for LIV at this moment is inertia. Once they got DJ signed on for eleventy billion dollars, there suddenly arose a feeling of inevitability. Or at least it did for me.

Especially now that they’ve finally gotten the thing off the ground, the quality of the product is only going to get better. By merely existing, LIV has already been a success. Admittedly, my entrepreneurial side respects that.

All of which brings me to perhaps the most important, final point: LIV isn’t providing cover repressive Saudi regime nearly as much as some commentators would have you believe.

First of all, who thinks any better of a deplorable country just because it attempts to ‘sportswash’ by sponsoring or hosting major athletic events? After Russia or China hosted recent Olympiads, did you really think any better of them?

I can speak for myself and say … absolutely not. I enjoyed the games for what they were, but I didn’t suddenly become sympathetic to Beijing’s treatment of Uyghur Muslims because I tuned in to watch Chloe Kim carve up a halfpipe.

Secondly, if someone from the House of Saud wants to hand me $150 million to play golf in a league that doesn’t even feature Saudi Arabia in its branding? Just tell me where to sign.

The joke’s on them if they’re willing to pay me that much for simply plying my trade, without any oversight on how I go about my business. I’ll gladly cash the checks, but I’m not going to say the Crown Prince is a good dude.

The not-so-funny thing about our capitalist world is that money is both king and queen. So then we’re going to tell people which money is OK to accept and which isn’t? Even if you’ve already made millions in your life, you have a right to make more.

If cash is being practically given away, as is the case with some of the more lucrative (reported) contracts thus far issued by LIV, you’d be stupid not to take it. Because if you don’t, someone else will.

Let’s not forget, there’s always the option of investing that money in LGBTQ or women’s rights causes, just to name a couple things that run counter to the Saudi way of looking at things. I imagine that might actually make a real-world difference, as opposed to simply talking and tweeting.

So, long column short, I’m willing to hold my nose and appreciate the fact that something fresh and exciting could come out of this major disruption.

We all love this game, or you wouldn’t be reading this right now. If the Saudi government — and I use that term loosely — is willing to funnel literal billions into spicing up golf, I’m not going to tell them no or stand in their way.

The ironic thing is that, in this money-forward proposition, money is actually no object to the Saudis. Must be nice, but it gives them immense power to change the order of things. It’s up to the traditional authorities to adapt, improvise and overcome, if they can.

At least with that last part, I believe golf fans will be the richer for it. Leave all the labor law concerns aside — and whether Ian Poulter has enough room in his garage for another five cars — and that’s what it comes down to for me. Our only loyalty should be what makes golf a more engaging, interesting product.

We’ve seen it in the past in our country, with rival leagues challenging the NFL, NBA and NHL in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s been a while, but let’s remember that, after a period of transition, a so-called enemy at the gates has the potential to invigorate.

The status quo was only serving a select few. Let’s LIV a little.

A 15-year veteran of sports media, Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) is the founding editor of PGN. Matt is a lifelong golfer with a passion for all aspects of the sport, from technique to courses to competition. His experience ranges from reporting on Pittsburgh's major-league beats, to broadcasting a variety of sports, to public relations, multimedia production and social media.

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