After two LIV seasons, here’s what the league has (and hasn’t) accomplished
Bryson DeChambeau poured in his three-foot par putt and looked to the heavens in disbelief. It was Sunday at the LIV Golf team championships in Miami, and for the hundredth (thousandth?) time that week, the upstart league had proven that it was not the PGA Tour.
As DeChambeau thrust his fist, his three Crushers GC teammates greeted him on the green with fizzing bottles of champagne. They exchanged bear hugs, and later bathed in a confetti bath. A DJ blared in the distance — from the site of the podium celebration, another LIV speciality — but DeChambeau and his teammates appeared to be hearing something else: the sweet, sweet sound of vindication. Or were those smiles more about the $14 million payday?
“We’ve been waiting for a long, long time for this,” DeChambeau said. “These guys are the best.“
The Crushers hadn’t been waiting that long. This was the final day of what was LIV Golf’s only second season, a 14-event journey that brought the Saudi-backed league around the world and back again, culminating with this weekend’s team-only competition at Trump Doral.
It had not been a tremendous year for LIV, to borrow one of the former President’s favorite adjectives, but it had not been a failure, either. In fact, if you squinted hard at the crowds dancing beneath the DJ booth as the sky turned pink, you could see signs of the vision that commissioner Greg Norman had promised at LIV’s first event 16 months ago in London.
“We’re supercharging the game, and turning golf into the sport it’s destined to become,” Norman said then. “The future of golf starts Thursday, and there’s no looking back.”
Today, it’s hard to interpret Norman’s words as anything other than a foreboding promise of what was to come. For two seasons, the league has promised the future, and for two years, it has failed to specify how the future looked. All of this raises a first, important question.
As LIV’s sophomore season wraps, what has the league proved to us? The closest we’ve gotten to an answer is this: LIV is not the PGA Tour.
Ever since it arrived on the scene, LIV has buttered its bread on the premise that golf’s largest professional tour needed radical change, and through two years there’s no arguing it was proven right. LIV is responsible for enacting the largest structural shift to the PGA Tour system in decades, forcing a transformation of the Tour’s business model, and ushering in the most prolific era of player empowerment since the Tour’s founding. More impressively yet for LIV, many of the changes drafted to fix the Tour mimic the likeness of its new rival.
That wasn’t all LIV proved the Tour wrong about. Its criticisms of the Tour as a geriatric behemoth that was undervaluing its stars also mostly bore out, and not only by way of the wave of PGA Tour-to-LIV defectors. LIV’s belief that team golf would prove more compelling than the Tour’s confusing playoff structure led to two Tour stalwarts, Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, starting a team league of their own. LIV’s investment in reimagining golf television resulted in the most visually distinct and agile broadcast in the sport (to be fair, having few sponsors to satisfy has helped in that regard). LIV’s early argument that the best players should be obligated to more regularly compete against one another already sounds antiquated, because it has been proven so unequivocally true. Witness the Tour’s implementation of signature events.
To date, this is LIV’s crowning achievement: summarily pressuring the Tour hard enough to change the tenor of golf as a whole. For this, the league deserves credit.
But it is one thing to tear down another business, and it is another entirely to build one up for yourself. As LIV has learned the hard way, there is not much money to be made shouting “what about the PGA Tour?” into the ether, which raises a second, far more pressing question.
As we reach the end of season 2, has LIV proven anything to the golf world about its business model, its viability or itself?
Time and time again, LIV has shown its best skill is speaking boldly but unspecifically about its future. Its officials are skilled at avoiding expectation-setting, which affords the league freedom to gesticulate wildly without being inconvenienced by the truth.
Franchise owners? LIV is apparently in negotiations with a series of still-unnamed buyers…and has been for two years. It has yet to sell a team.
Team and league sponsors? LIV signed a few agreements with little-known companies like SimpleBet, EasyPost and MIP. After two seasons, long-promised corporate blue-chippers remain firmly on the sidelines.
TV ratings? LIV stopped reporting those months ago, after low opening weekend viewership was followed by a few consecutive weekends of ratings declines.
Attendance? Brooks Koepka joined a host of other players and golf influencers offering discount codes to the team championships last week, a fan turnout effort LIV has been forced to deploy a few times before.
Superstars? LIV’s best players — Brooks, Bryson, Phil, DJ, Cam — are still needle-movers, but it’s been more than a year since the league plucked away a top-end talent.
Big-picture successes? An unspecified “explosion of interest” in golf among younger and more diverse golfers, per CEO Greg Norman. The latest numbers from the publicly available National Golf Foundation show that rounds played are up considerably among younger, female golfers, but the uptick in that demo comfortably predates LIV.
The facts have not stopped LIV from claiming victory on some or all of these battlefields, because the facts aren’t relevant. The point is that they might be true, and more specifically, it’s impossible to prove they aren’t.
Could it be that LIV still hasn’t found an interested franchise owner at a price point worth considering? Could it be that Fortune 500 companies are still skittish about partnering with LIV due to moral, ethical or economic concerns? Could it be that only marginal audiences are watching on TV? Could it be that LIV’s efforts to provably “grow the game” are intentionally vague?
Of course it could! But to know would require a level of transparency that the league does not offer. (To be fair, this is not an area in which the PGA Tour historically has excelled, either.) Why would LIV not want to offer that level of transparency? Perhaps because it is concerned about what its openness would reveal about the growth of its business.
In many ways, LIV has treated golf the same way a shrewd politician treats an incumbent: It’s not about proving your option is better, it’s about turning the decision into a referendum on the old guy. In this framework, LIV doesn’t have to be good so long as the PGA Tour is still flawed. And it doesn’t ever have to be better, so long as voters are distracted arguing about the other thing.
There are two problems with this approach, though. The first is that it assumes the incumbent is incapable of change. The Tour has, in fact, proven itself so adept at evolving these last two years that LIV may be not its rival but its sister tour at the start of next season.
The second — and far bigger — problem is that this approach assumes the audience is compelled to choose sides in the first place. Outside of a precious few players and employees, nobody is forced to live with the results of the battle between LIV and the PGA Tour; nobody is forced to pick a favorite. The audience can choose to change the channel whenever it likes. And if the audience doesn’t like what’s on TV — be the offering from LIV or the PGA Tour — it can turn off the set entirely.
Apathy is the greatest risk of the tour wars. As LIV leaves its second season in the rearview, it would be wise to recognize that being Not The PGA Tour hasn’t proven a particularly effective recruiting strategy — not only for the fans it hopes to reach but also for attracting new players. LIV must lean harder into developing its own identity.
DeChambeau seemed to recognize this on Sunday evening in Miami. One of the first captains selected for the new league, DeChambeau has long been a golf maverick, in ways both redeeming and occasionally embarrassing, a trait that made him perhaps the perfect candidate to capture the LIV’s second team championship.
As DeChambeau basked in the glow of a victory he equated to a major championship, though, his mind seemed far away from the worries of golf’s future. He looked to LIV and saw an opportunity to do something different — truly different — with pro golf. Now, in the wake of the biggest victory of his LIV career, he looked to his teammates and realized he’d missed a glorious opportunity to accomplish just that.
From the podium at his championship-winning press conference, DeChambeau dialed up a sales pitch.
“Thank you to Bushnell,” he said. “We need to get a sponsorship for the Crushers. Come on, Bushnell. We’re using them.”
Nope, definitely not the PGA Tour.