SUGAR GROVE, Ill. — Apologies to the much-promoted team aspect of LIV Golf, but this sport retains its starkly individual nature regardless of the packaging.
Specifically, top-level professional golf has long depended on its stars to carry it into a wider spotlight.
The Tiger Woods Era might’ve been the best example of that — sometimes to the PGA Tour’s detriment when he wasn’t teeing it up — but the tradition dates back to the days of Norman, Nicklaus, Player, Palmer, Hogan … even Sarazen and Hagen.
It’s probably technically incorrect to say LIV ‘needs’ its headliners to contend, since the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund could keep the tour running for as long as it sees fit, but for this unprecedented start-up to gain the public awareness it desires, it requires the big boys to deliver.
After a so-so start in that regard — no offense to early winners Charl Schwartzel, Branden Grace and Henrik Stenson, accomplished gents with a couple of major titles and the lowest round in major history among them — the marquee names are starting to rise to the top of that LIV leaderboard pylon.
On the strength of his sixth consecutive round in the 60s since joining LIV, Australian star and PGA player of the year Cam Smith strangled any drama out of Sunday’s final round at Rich Harvest Farms with a 3-under 69 that secured a three-shot win over Dustin Johnson and Peter Uihlein.
To hear Smith tell it, between the pressure of the moment and the super-firm course, he needed all he had to convert his first LIV victory in just his second start. He was 1 over on the day through six holes and looking outwardly irked at his long game before making consecutive birdies at 7 and 8 to re-open a multi-shot lead.
“I think it was quite frustrating at the start of the day,” Smith said. “I didn’t feel like I was striking the ball as well as I had the first couple of days.
“I just kind of stuck in there. I think after that I started to feel a little bit better about myself and kind of got the round going again.”
Smith, the erstwhile No. 2 player in those pesky Official World Golf Rankings that keep gumming up the works for LIV, has won four times in 2022, all while facing down some of the planet’s top players. He also won the PGA Tour’s Tournament of Champions in January, the Players Championship in April, and of course the Open Championship at St Andrews in July.
He then finished one shot out of a playoff two weeks ago in Boston as a highly-hyped LIV debutante, an experience he admitted was nerve-wracking.
“I think probably that first event was the most pressure I’ve been under all year inside of an event,” Smith confessed to reporters Sunday night, clutching yet another trophy.
“I feel as though I needed to prove to myself, and probably more so to other people, that just because I’ve changed tours doesn’t mean I’m a worse player for it. I’m still out here to win. That’s what we’re all here for. Hopefully we can keep this going.”
The two Big Men on Campus coming down the stretch in Chicago pic.twitter.com/a0wQUmlfJI
— Matt Gajtka (GITE-kah) (@MattGajtka) September 18, 2022
The journeyman Uihlein tried to spoil the Sunday storyline, actually jumping ahead of a stalled Johnson a couple of times. Son of retired golf magnate Wally Uihlein — ever hear of Titleist or Footjoy? — the 33-year-old former U.S. Amateur champ has bounced among four different pro tours. He had three worldwide wins, most recently last year on the Korn Ferry Tour, before teeing it up in the final group Sunday, and his mediocre LIV results to date were enough to wonder if 2022 would be his only shot at elevating his status in the golf world.
Ignoring all of that, Uihlein stuffed a wedge to a foot on the par-4 15th to climb within two. Could he really catch Cam? Briefly, the margin fell to one stroke when Smith couldn’t get up and down on the par-3 16th.
But Uihlein missed his shortish par putt moments later, squandering the chance to make the individual race really interesting. Then, just like Saturday, Smith jammed a mid-iron approach inside 10 feet on 17, converting for birdie and all but putting the champagne on ice.
“It was a good day,” Uihlein said. “Anytime you play with Cam and DJ, it’s gonna be special. It’s gonna be hectic. Wish I could’ve had a couple of shots back on the back nine. The bogey on 16 stung a little bit.”
Speaking of bubbly, at least DJ could take solace in the fact his Four Aces GC team reigned over the field for a fourth straight victory, this time by a one-shot margin. Patrick Reed chipped in twice on the front nine — including an eagle on 7 — on his way to a 4-under 68, while the maligned Pat Perez rallied for a 2-under 70 to pick up their struggling captain.
“The team part I wasn’t too stressed about,” a beaming Johnson said. “Myself, obviously, I was in a very good spot, just didn’t get off to a great start, but as a team we’ve got a great group of guys. I knew they were playing well, too.”
This one got more than a little hairy, though, as Smash GC made a run at its first team title on the backs of Uihlein (3 under on Sunday) and none other than Chase Koepka (5 under), the younger brother of Brooks who took heat for being the lowest-ranked LIV signee back in the spring.
“It was tough getting the ball close to the hole today, but I managed to roll in a couple from 20 feet,” Koepka said. “I’d say the last six holes, I did a little bit of scoreboard watching. The results haven’t quite been there individually, but it was nice to battle back after shooting over par in the first round.”
It came down to Johnson vs. Uihlein to decide the team event, with both men sitting over the green in two on the par-5 18th, and Four Aces ahead by one. Johnson nearly chipped in for eagle, making the resulting tap-in birdie the clinching shot.
Johnson, who started the defense of his Boston title with a 9-under 63 on Friday, wasn’t his dominant self over the past two days. Back-to-back “bad bogeys” on 8 and 9 seemed to doom his chances Sunday, with his game unusually ragged around the edges, despite rallying to red numbers with a 70.
However, crucially for LIV, their key early signing continues to show up in contention. His lowest finish in five events is eighth, and that was the league’s debut in London three months ago.
“I thought I wasn’t going to count today, which was fine, because I was playing like shit,” said Johnson, obviously feeling some of that post-round champagne. “I like how they show the leaderboard (on the course), they show our whole team and they show the scores.
“I’m like, ‘OK, guys are playing good, now I need to start playing better.’ ”
Also, don’t look now, but one Philip Alfred Mickelson might be finally rounding into form. The biggest public punching bag for LIV in its inaugural year, Lefty has been a non-factor on the course since London, but he shot Sunday’s lowest round, a 6-under 66, to finish T-8 and lift his Hy Flyers GC to a third-place tie in the team standings, level with the all-Aussie Punch GC.
Recent LIV signing Cam Tringale played able backup to Phil, posting a 68 that he punctuated with a vicious birdie fist-pump on the 13 green, leaving no doubt most of the 48 players are paying close attention to the team standings.
“It was a good little day with us, to enjoy the momentum,” Mickelson said.
“Anytime you can execute, it feels amazing,” Tringale added, putting his arm around his captain.
But honestly, while it would be nice for LIV — and possibly reinvigorating to pro golf — if the team aspect takes off, the individual competition is a proven driver of publicity in this game.
So good for Greg Norman and Co. that they have a couple aces in the hole at this early juncture: A couple players in their primes who’ve shown their games are portable to one of the most nakedly ambitious sports start-ups in history.
“Everything had to start once upon a time,” Smith said. “There is a history aspect that is for certain missing, but it doesn’t mean that the tournament is a bad tournament because of it. There’s 48 of the best guys out here trying to compete and trying to win.
“In 10, 20 years’ time, these could be the biggest events in the world. We’re just not there yet.”