SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — Bryson DeChambeau lashed a mighty mid-iron toward the green of the par-5 second hole at Rich Harvest Farms.
Solid shot, ending up just off the putting surface. Good chance for birdie.
Suddenly, from just a few feet away, just behind the rope line, there was an equally mighty yell.
“Great fuckin’ shot, Bryson!” screamed a burly man decked out in an all-black, LIV-branded polo shirt.
There were a few chuckles from the healthy crowd gathered, but for the most part, no one had a reaction — DeChambeau included. He simply kept walking, casually tossing his iron to caddie Greg Bodine.
Having covered more than my share of high-level golf events, I nearly gasped at the outburst. Am I that sensitive? Considering my six-year-old son is already dropping profanities, I kinda doubt it.
What I am, though, is acclimated to the usual atmosphere around golf competition. This is my second year covering LIV’s Chicago tour stop, so I wasn’t naïve to what I would see or hear on site, but it’s still a shock to the system after experiencing three decades of golf decorum.
Hey, the guy who’s leading the ahem frickin’ event agrees with me, kind of.
“I feel like where I struggle is whenever I try to hit little shots with the music pumping, just because the adrenaline kind of takes over,” said Colombia’s Sebastián Muñoz, who vaulted ahead of the field by three after shooting an 8-under 63 Saturday.
Alright, I cherrypicked that quote a bit. Muñoz had more to say.
“I definitely enjoy the music,” he told me. “I kind of keep going in a rhythm, and it makes the round kind of go faster.”
Honestly, the music might be the best thing about LIV, at least when you’re live on the course. Not only do the club beats impart a fun, relaxed vibe, they also make it so that spectators mostly don’t have to be library quiet when players are hitting shots.
Heck, even at a tennis match you can quietly chat with a friend during play. The desire for perfect silence at most pro golf events only serves to gatekeep against fans who might otherwise get into the game, in my opinion.
Say what you will about LIV, there’s not a lot of gatekeeping going on, at least from what I’ve witnessed over three rounds of shotgun-start golf over the past two Septembers.
No one’s telling anyone to go back to their shanties. From the clothes fans are wearing, to the topics of conversation in the galleries — I heard more than one reference to Barstool’s ‘Fore Play’ podcast as I worked my way around the 7,400-yard layout — there’s no doubt LIV is accessing a different clientele.
If you don’t believe me, take it from the guy who called out to DeChambeau after a short missed putt.
“That’s when you light up a cig and shotgun a beer!” the gentleman yelped, maybe more to himself than anything.
Biochemical responses to bogeys aside, I don’t think it’s hyperbole to say that if the upcoming partnership between the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund that underwrites LIV has any chance of meaningfully growing pro golf’s audience, it’s going to have to take significant inspiration from what LIV has tried to do in two seasons of play.
It also would help to get more of the 12 four-player teams to join in the marketing push. It seems like only a few are really trying to diversify the overarching brand.
The Bubba Watson-captained RangeGoats GC imagery was everywhere at Rich Harvest Farms, highlighted by a hot-pink chalet overlooking the par-3 17th ‘Party Hole’ and a literal goat petting zoo in the fan village. Watson himself was even tossing branded pink frisbees into the crowd during Tiësto’s post-round DJ set.
(I just had to look up where Tiësto’s umlaut went. New one for me in a sports story. Or any story.)
The teams might still be hit and miss, but there are still plenty of big personal brands out there, which is the reason I decided to follow the DeChambeau-Brooks Koepka group on this balmy Chicagoland Saturday. Their weirdo rivalry has essentially ended when both decided to LIV it up last year, but I figured the charged atmosphere around the threesome — Talor Gooch was also included — would represent what the tour is going for.
As you read above, my hunt was mostly fruitful. Something that surprised me from my front-nine journey with the group was occasional pointed negativity for Koepka. One young couple in particular was practically high-fiving when Brooks couldn’t get up and down on the first hole. Another thing you don’t often see in the polite world of tournament golf.
When I pointed out to them that maybe the U.S. Ryder Cup team would like to see Brooks find some form before next weekend, they agreed, but they retorted that Koepka reminded them of the too-cool-for-school bully we all knew back in the day.
Touché. Onward they jeered, although not terribly loudly.
The next hole was where I met my profane friend from the fourth paragraph, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized he’s just a golf nut like me. He just expresses himself differently.
And the more I looked for it, the more I saw spectators nerding out over club selection, or marveling at some flat-out greenside artistry.
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) September 23, 2023
So maybe this isn’t some War of the Golf Worlds deal. Maybe you can appreciate both a delicate flop shot and Tiësto’s chest-thumping bass drops. Of course you can, as my sister-in-law proves.
But maybe the future of sports is more of a hybrid of pure sport and eclectic entertainment. Heaven forbid, maybe the two sides can actually enhance each other.
Food for thought. If it’s a winner, it’s a winner, right?
Reminds me of something India’s Anirban Lahiri said when I asked him if he preferred the way Rich Harvest Farms played last year — a traditional, firm-and-fast test — or the more soggy, approachable version LIVers are seeing this year.
“I prefer any golf course where, at the end of the week, I’m standing on the podium,” he said with a smirk. “I prefer that.”
Spoken like a true competitor. He’ll be starting Sunday’s final round three back of Muñoz, but he’ll have a decent shot at his first LIV victory.
Pro golf in general might have a shot at its own win on a grander scale. It’s just got to go with what works, whether or not it looks — or sounds — like what we’re used to.