Gajtka: LIV’s All About the Show … But It’s Still About the Shots
SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — “Dri-ver! Dri-ver! Dri-ver!”
A group of Bryson DeChambeau’s most boisterous supporters didn’t motor all the way out to the western edge of Chicagoland to watch golf’s Thicc King (not my term) hit an iron for his first shot at 12:15 sharp Saturday afternoon.
So this gaggle of polo-shirted bros made their opinion known as the shotgun start ticked ever closer, and elite pro golf’s biggest hitter disappointingly left the headcover on the big stick. To his credit, DeChambeau looked their way and grinned, ironically egging them on to chant louder.
But, hit an iron Bryson did. Pumped it over 300 yards, in fact, on par with his fellow-competitors who each mashed driver on the downhill, downwind par-5 18th at Rich Harvest Farms.
“Not today!” DeChambeau shouted out to the gathering, noting that a well-struck driver would’ve carried into a creek about 350 yards down the fairway.
Agreed, IMO. pic.twitter.com/c5DTGBTnfq
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) September 17, 2022
And so, amid all the cacophony of the pre-round build-up — from parachuters dropping out of the sky to Beastie Boys blasting from myriad speakers — LIV Golf is still pretty much about golf, first and foremost.
To be clear, that’s not a bad thing, at least from this reporter’s perspective. After all, that’s why we’re all here. No one would know who Bryson or Dustin or Phil or Cam were if they weren’t among the globe’s finest practitioners of this crazy sport.
Still, it’s worth a reminder that this isn’t really the circus it might seem from the outside. As the second round of LIV’s fifth tournament in its debut season showed, it’s still about the golf … even if it is undeniably louder, as the marketing slogan goes.
The whole scene is agreeing with one player at least, arguably the biggest fish Greg Norman and Co. have reeled in during this wildest of years for men’s pro golf.
“I think the music out on the golf course and on the (practice) range is something that I really enjoy,” said 36-hole leader Cam Smith. “I think everyone out there really enjoys it, as well.
“I feel like the fans are closer to you and they’re probably a little bit louder on Saturday and Sunday afternoons. I love it, mate.”
As someone who’s covered several high-level golf tournaments, I can report the crowd was looser — possibly with some beverage-based assistance — and more chatty than most I’ve encountered around this game.
How much of that is confirmation bias, or falling for the marketing? I couldn’t tell you, but there’s something to be said for the relaxing effect of hearing dance music pumping out of speakers placed throughout the course. No doubt, fun was encouraged, as long as the players weren’t being disrupted when it’s time to hit the ball.
The 18th hole and beyond at @LIVGolfInv Chicago. No, my hair isn’t long enough to be shaped into a mullet, thank you very much. pic.twitter.com/o1dk1kTR9B
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) September 17, 2022
It’s also true that I have a soft spot in my heart for capital-D Disruptors, and I’ve often found the PGA Tour’s way of handling its events to be overly staid and stale. I’m sure a lot of the athletes who’ve signed on with LIV have a similar mindset, although I’m also sure the amount of zeroes on their bi-monthly paychecks can buy a lot of loyalty.
“I mean, it’s golf, but louder, right?” said Brooks Koepka, the man with the most major wins (four) on this fledgling circuit, and one of the guys who still draws large crowds four years after his last Big Win.
“It’s pretty energized,” Koepka said. “The fans have been great. Everybody that’s come out has been awesome. It’s been enjoyable for us, the players (and) the caddies.”
Koepka, you’ll remember, was part of the first wave of players to say goodbye to the PGA Tour/DP World Tour alliance and say hello to the Saudi-backed LIV. He doesn’t have the currency of Smith or Johnson, or the curiosity of DeChambeau, but Koepka brings some real golf legitimacy to these proceedings.
You might have noticed that, the Boston event excepted, the scores on LIV haven’t been quite as low as we’ve come to expect in pro golf, major championships excluded. (No, that’s not just because they’re playing 18 fewer holes, smart guy.)
Count Koepka as a fan of the mostly-challenging setups, which will include this week, if the first two rounds are any indication.
“You’re playing big boy golf courses, so you know it’s going to be tough,” Koepka said. “I like it better. It’s definitely better setups. No complaints here.”
Surely, in order to enhance this product, the fields could still be deeper. I found myself looking at roughly half the names on pairings sheet with indifference, even if there are supporting characters like Oakmont U.S. Amateur champion James Piot who I’d have more interest than most in watching.
Don’t mistake my hope for more depth for more size, though. One of the things LIV Golf gets right is the smallness of the product. More on that shotgun start in a bit, but I think a 48-player field is a nice size to keep track of, and that 54 holes is sufficient to determine the best player on a given week.
Simply put, there’s too much pro golf out there, and LIV is one of the few modern sports businesses willing to subtract instead of add. You can get your arms around these tournaments, whether you’re watching on YouTube or in person.
I also found the live experience more engaging than most sporting events I’ve attended, not limited to golf. The fan ‘village’ behind the 18th green is full of food, drink and games to indulge in, and you don’t miss out on the golf because of the projection screens set up throughout the area.
Yes, it’s different, even when it comes to the mundane details of spectator golf. The volunteers hold signs that read ‘ZIP IT’ and ‘SHHHH’ vertically instead of ‘QUIET, PLEASE.’ There’s a slicker feel to the branding, the banners and flags and such. It feels like golf joined the 21st century, embracing the way many people experience the sport at their own courses, clubs and driving ranges.
(Oh, and there’s Smith cutting Norman’s silver shock of hair into something resembling a mullet. That indeed happened.)
Then there’s the shotgun start, which I’m still not totally sold on long-term, but I have to concede that after being here in person for the countdown, it imbues an energy and urgency that, frankly, is often utterly foreign to this ancient game.
I can’t help but think all that bleeds over to the actual play in some way.
“I think LIV has done a great job with engaging the crowd,” Smith said. “I love the energy. Like I said last week, I think the course has a heartbeat. Everyone is really engaged and everyone is really watching what you’re doing.”
Nearly 1,100 words into this piece and I’ve only barely mentioned why this is possible. LIV might be fiscally sustainable down the line, but it couldn’t have gotten off the ground without the bottomless pockets of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.
I’m not going to insult you by insinuating that the source of the funds shouldn’t matter to you. I’m simply commenting on the product here, which I know is a non-starter for some readers.
I respect that, but I can’t deny that there’s a lot of good, fresh ideas being implemented in LIV’s first go-around.
And if you’re just here for the golf, there’s plenty to dig your teeth into. It just has a different seasoning than you’re used to.