LIV’s life-changing riches aren’t guaranteed. Ask the 4 players who just got the boot
In LIV Golf’s infancy, one of the reasons some, if not all, players cited for fleeing establishment tours to join the upstart Saudi-financed league was the dough. Generational wealth was a phrase you sometimes heard, the chance for players to set up not only themselves for life but also their children and their children and maybe even their children. Invested wisely, nine-figure contracts have serious staying power.
But not all LIV players were guaranteed such riches. While A-listers like Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau signed mega-deals as LIV was taking flight — largely because they brought with them instant credibility — the league’s rank-and-file would have to sing for their candlelit suppers, with a harsh consequence facing the four lowest finishers in the season-long points race: relegation to the Asian Tour.
Survival of the fittest? Nah, not really, given LIV’s team captains — aka its biggest stars — are protected from the boot. But you could understand if less shiny recruits have felt pressure to make hay while they can, because there are no guarantees their LIV gravy trains will last forever.
We were reminded of this on Sunday, in the wake of LIV’s Saudi Arabia tournament, the final event of LIV’s regular season, where first place (Brooks Koepka) banked a cool $4 million and last (Chase Koepka, Brooks’ brother) a still-quite-cool $120,000. When the dust had settled at Royal Greens Golf & Country Club, the four players on the outside looking in were Sihwan Kim, a former U.S. Junior Amateur winner; 24-year-old Australian Jediah Morgan; former U.S. Amateur champion James Piot; and Koepka (Chase, not Brooks). That quartet will have a chance to play its way back into the mix for 2024 at the LIV Golf Promotions event (dates and locale still to be announced), but barring a good week there, they’re out.
The upshot? For one, they’ll be playing for much smaller prizes next year. Assuming they join the Asian circuit, they’ll be chasing purses in the $2 million range, with first-place payouts in the $300,000s. You don’t need to tell Kim this. His yearly haul when he won the Asian Tour’s Order of Merit in 2022 ($627,458) is roughly the equivalent of what a single LIV event pays out…for 6th place.
But it’s not just the paydays that will change for these players. The newly demoted also will lose their LIV teammates. That might not sound like a big deal, but after one or two years of trotting around the globe with their stablemates — and collectively batting back the LIV haters — bonds have been forged. However you feel about LIV and its 54-hole, no-cut, music-blaring, team-golf format, the league’s participants insist they’ve grown tight.
Ask Iron Heads captain Kevin Na, who has seen his teammate, Sihwan Kim, struggle though a brutal season, which Kim opened with an 11-over 82 in Mayakoba. Things didn’t get much better from there. In 13 starts, Kim finished under par just once, in Tulsa. In LIV’s 48-player fields, Kim finished last four times and only once did he place better than 43rd.
“It’s been difficult to watch,” Na said Wednesday from this week’s season-capping LIV event in Miami.
That’s the thing about being a captain — it’s not only your own game that you need to worry about. You’re part player, part coach, part therapist.
“We always tell him that, Look, you’re probably going to go win one of those Q-School and be back on the team,” Na continued. “And if he doesn’t, we are still going to be friends. … I think the friendship is going to last forever.”
Cameron Smith, the Ripper skipper, shared similar sentiments about his team’s relegate, Jediah Morgan.
“There’s a lot to think about there,” Smith said, namely that Smith and his other teammates know that Morgan has game — he showed it with his closing 66 at Bedminster, which Smith described as “one of the hardest days out there and he blew us all away” — but just one top-20 finish for the season isn’t going to cut it. Not even close.
“We are all there to help him,” Smith said, adding, “If he wasn’t to make it, I think a year where he could develop his game elsewhere and become a more consistent player and a better player might not be the worst thing.”
Phil Mickelson, the HyFlyers captain, knows a thing or two about developing players. On the PGA Tour, he was known for taking young’uns under his wing during practice rounds, albeit also with a secondary goal of fattening his wallet with his preferred money game du jour. Last winter, Mickelson invited his young teammate, James Piot, to Mickelson’s San Diego-area home for short-game counsel. “I was sitting there thinking about it,” Piot recalled earlier this year. “Man, how cool is this getting mentored by Phil Mickelson in his backyard?”
Life comes at you fast. Now, Piot is on his way out.
“Our team is very invested in his success, and we want him to succeed,” Mickelson said of Piot.
Maybe so, but Mickelson also has a team to run. “I’ve been fielding calls, as we all have, from players that are free agents to PGA Tour players to DP World Tour players that want to come over,” Mickelson said. “You know, the spot’s probably going to be filled by the time the qualifying tournament is here.”
In the words of Michael Corleone, “It’s not personal. It’s just business.”
The most awkward demotion, though? That undoubtedly was Chase Koepka’s, because even though Brooks is captain of their Smash squad, he could do nothing to save his little brother from the ax. Only more birdies could have achieved that.
“I watched Chase work over the last year and a half,” Brooks said Wednesday. “Spent more time around him. It’s been fun for me to see him evolve, grow as a person, grow as a man. I’d take him back in a heartbeat. He’s just got to go out and do — play good. Simple as that.”
The accounting is simple, too. Chase has won $2.25 million this year without finishing any better than 24th. If he doesn’t earn his way back onto LIV in 2024, he’s going to need a career year on the Asian Tour to stay in the same tax bracket.