BEDMINISTER, NJ – Four-time major golf champion Brooks Koepka was riding a golf cart on Saturday with his wife, Gina Sims, seated on his lap, both laughing as the cart headed to the golf course.
It was a nice snapshot of summer in New Jersey.
What sets the scene apart, however, is the fact that Koepka was about two minutes away from plowing into the second round of the LIV Golf event at Trump Bidminster Golf Club. Usually, the buildup of the first shot in a professional golf tournament is tense, restless and full of pressure. After all, a seven-figure payday is at stake.
The Koepka-Sims jovial, while harmless fun ride, underlined the impact of the guaranteed nine-figure contracts earned by the top players on the Saudi-backed junior tour of LIV Golf. Koepka reportedly received over $100 million to join the breakaway ring.
No wonder he and his wife were laughing.
When LIV Golf completed its third event of the year on Sunday, there was an unmistakable carefree atmosphere, a feeling that everyone really got their money back. That’s because dozens have earned, and even the player who finished last received $120,000 in compensation (with travel and accommodation expenses reimbursed for top players).
Henrik Stenson won the tournament and earned $4 million.
However, for all the focus on exorbitant prize money, the LIV Golf experience has been enlightening and exciting for professional golf in other, less greedy ways. The atmosphere Friday through Sunday in northwest New Jersey was younger, less clogged, and distinctly more open to trials than the set PGA Tour. This meant releasing high-energy music even when golfers tried to take diabolical hits or tricky chips. Dustin Johnson sang “(You should) fight for your right to the party!” ($125 million down payment) in large volumes as he played on his first tee on Sunday.
His bullet landed in the vault.
But many fans felt active in the environment.
“You go to a traditional golf tournament and they keep telling you to shut up,” said Patrick Shields, who lives in Hackensack, New Jersey, next to the number 16 jersey. “It’s a sporting event, isn’t it?”
However, LIV Golf volunteers on the course carried crowd control signs meant to appease fans, as is typical of the PGA Tour as well. Banners were raised above our heads and read “Zip it” or “Shhhh”.
Although volunteers never have to deal with large crowds, it’s just as important. Attendance for the final round on Sunday was greatly improved from the tiny gatherings that appeared in the first two rounds – there were often only about 30 people around a green area – but the total number of fans on the grounds on Sunday was no more than several thousand.
LIV Golf Series Quick Guide
New series. The launch of the new Saudi-funded LIV Golf Series has reignited long-standing questions about athletes’ ethical obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what you need to know:
An average PGA Tour event attracts around 20,000 fans per day. LIV Golf officials declined to release attendance numbers. Honestly, the event weekend pass can be purchased for $2 at the secondary ticket market. The main financial support of the rebel circle, the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, could have played a role in the modest turnout of the masses. In the opening seconds of the event on Friday, as Phil Mickelson was preparing to hit his first shot, someone yelled at him: “Do it for the Saudi royals.”
Overall, the new round also lacks, for now at least, enough big-name golfers to attract a large crowd. Mickelson is a draw, but limited because he’s played the worst golf in his luminous career since choosing to line up with the Rebel circuit. And after Koepka, Johnson, a few golfers made it past their first games and Bryson DeChambeau, who was also struggling to compete, the average golf fan looking at the leaderboard this weekend might be confused.
On the ninth hole on Saturday, Justin Harding, ranked 123rd in the world, hit his golf ball over the green, where it came to rest near a massive concession rod. Places selling liquor were well attended over the three days, and because Harding had a hard time climbing into the green, about 20 spectators spilled off the crossbar to stand nearly next to Harding as he tried to save him.
After Harding subtly descended to within three feet of the pit and began to move away, a little boy around turned around and asked, “Dad, who is this?”
The father said: I have no idea.
This can be attributed to growing pains, and LIV Golf officials have also privately insisted that the real key to success is generating an allure for the team component in the competitions, which run concurrently with the individual competition. They envision four-man teams, some built along national lines such as a group of Australians, Japanese, English and South Africans. The theory goes that this could help sell the LIV Tour globally.
In the small merchandise trailer at the event’s fan village, which was snug at the county fair, sales shelves were stocked with T-shirts, hats, and golf jerseys promoting the team’s names: Aces, Breakers, Majestics, etc.
But there is no precedent for American golf fans to attract teams of players of any kind except for the biennial Ryder Championship and Presidents Cup. That could change, but on Sunday, the cargo trailer shelves still had plenty of available team clothing. Among the bestsellers was a “Bedminster” embossed T-shirt and a white LIV Golf hat.
It’s also possible that once the primary PGA Tour season ends in late August, there will be another wave of defectors to the Breakaway Circle, which will continue to host cash-for-cash events around the world through late October. And then all eyes will be on Augusta National Golf Club, which runs the Masters Tournament in April. There have been signals, as there have been within the governing bodies of other major tournaments, that many LIV golfers may not be particularly welcome in Augusta.
Or by then, had the competing rounds begun the kind of negotiations that could lead to coexistence?
Late Sunday afternoon, as another LIV Series event wrapped up, a parade of golf carts was preparing to take players to the club. Not everyone will laugh on the road, but no one will come home with empty pockets.