SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — You don’t have to read the tea leaves too strenuously to see a pattern in where LIV Golf has visited so far during its four-stop American summer.
In cruising through the metro areas of New York, Boston, Chicago and Portland, LIV has clearly targeted locales that have hosted elite professional events in the past, but haven’t been regular legacy stops for the PGA Tour.
You also don’t have to be a psychic to follow my line of thinking when I arrived on Rich Harvest Farms property this weekend to cover this event. Could Pittsburgh — or, more broadly, western Pennsylvania — host a LIV invitational at some point?
According to LIV Golf Chief Events Officer Ron Cross, Pittsburgh is a definite host-market candidate as this breakaway tour looks to expand its offerings in 2023 and beyond.
“It’s certainly on the list,” Cross said in an exclusive interview with PGN on Sunday morning. “We’re looking at those markets that are starved for (elite pro) golf and don’t have it on a regular basis.
“Those markets, like a Pittsburgh, where we have an opportunity to bring golf on a regular basis or so often … are markets where we want to be and are looking at moving forward.”
Western Pennsylvania has hosted PGA Tour events in the past, most recently the 84 Lumber Classic at Nemacolin Woodlands in Farmington from 2003-06. Prior to that, Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier put on what was called the Marconi Pennsylvania Classic in 2001.
Of course, Oakmont Country Club is on the USGA’s regular rotation for its national championships, most notably the U.S. Open, which will return to Pittsburgh’s crown golf jewel in 2025. On top of that, local courses have hosted various women’s championships, men’s Senior/Champions Tour events and tournaments on what’s now called the Korn Ferry Tour, the PGA Tour’s primary feeder system.
To hear Cross tell it, that history of successful hosting combined with a lack of a spot on the PGA Tour’s regular rotation puts Pittsburgh firmly on LIV’s radar.
That stands even if it’s unlikely to be in the cards for 2023, when the Saudi-backed tour increases its number of tournaments from eight — five of them in the U.S. — to 14 worldwide stops. LIV has not announced next year’s circuit as of yet.
“There’s a lot of those (mid-size) markets out there,” Cross said. “And there’s a lot of markets that are probably big enough that can handle multiple big events. We’re still a start-up, and we’re still figuring it out. The good news is that people are knocking on our door now to say, ‘We want to host an event.’ So that’s helpful.”
Cross, who previously worked in a similar role with the PGA Tour, wouldn’t share if there are any Pittsburgh-area courses in particular that LIV has touched base with, but there’s a certain criteria for the type of show this organization is trying to put on.
That checklist includes not only a high-quality “big-boy” golf course, to use Brooks Koepka’s words from Saturday, but also enough space around the property to build up the massive ‘fan village’ entertainment zone, parking accommodations, media structures and more.
“There’s a list of 100 things that we look at,” Cross said. “First of all, we want it to be a championship golf course that’s going to be a fair test for these 48 players. Then we look at the ability to build a media center, a TV compound, hospitality at (certain holes), clubhouse infrastructure for player and family experience.
“All of those things are on our proverbial checklist to put in the mixing bowl and come up with and see if a place meets eight out of 10 (criteria), nine out of 10, 10 out of 10. We’ll figure it out if it’s not perfect.”
Just from my experience this weekend at Rich Harvest Farms, located 50 miles west of downtown Chicago, I would imagine a rural setting like Nemacolin would be a better fit than most in terms of infrastructure.
On top of that, the average winning score for a 72-hole tournament at the Mystic Rock course was in line with what LIV courses have yielded this year over 54 holes. Then-world No. 1 Vijay Singh posted the lowest winning score there in 2004, at 15 under par. Ben Curtis and Jason Gore won the next two years at 14 under.
Another LIV official who previously worked for the PGA Tour told PGN many Tour employees were saddened when 84 Lumber decided to pull its sponsorship of the event, leaving Pittsburgh on the outside of top-level pro golf on a regular basis.
Of course, this is speculation, and some courses may not want to cross the PGA Tour and risk burning a future bridge by signing on with its cash-flush rival. I asked Cross about this, and he said he hasn’t met that specific brand of pushback, although the courses might not have been forthright for why they didn’t want to entertain LIV’s interest.
“Early on, we talked to a couple of clubs who said, ‘It doesn’t fit for us right now,’ for whatever various reasons,” said Cross, whom LIV CEO Greg Norman recruited early in 2021.
“More importantly, right now … our network of players and fans are saying, ‘This is a great course; this is a great market; I know somebody and they talked to me about it.’
“I’m having those conversations now of where to go, and we have options. Again, from my perspective, we’re in a great place. The good news is, people are reaching out and saying, ‘How can we host an event?’ I’m having a lot more fun.
“People are definitely aware of LIV Golf now. That makes the conversations easier.”
Recent headline LIV signing Cam Smith said he’s enjoying visiting places in the U.S. he didn’t get to see much during his seven seasons on the PGA Tour.
Of course, being of Australian upbringing, he’s probably a little more sensitive than most to making sure golf fans can see their favorite players in the flesh more often. Part of the promise of LIV for many international players is that it’s positioned to be much more of a global tour than anything seen before in men’s pro golf.
“I think it’s great to bring golf to where it hasn’t been for a very long time,” Smith said Saturday. “I know we were up in Chicago maybe a few years ago, but it seems to be one that goes on and off the schedule.
“I think the fans really appreciate it, and hopefully we can come to these communities and keep giving back and showing them what they want.”
Look for my full Q&A with Ron Cross later this week on Pittsburgh Golf Now.