ST. ALBANS, England — As Phil Mickelson stood on the back of the 3rd tee at Centurion Club, he plugged his ears in anticipation.
Five, four, three, two, one … Trumpets — start!
The musicians assembled by the tee box in the second round of LIV Golf’s inaugural event were members of the London Fanfare Trumpets, whose website hypes as “the most impressive way to entertain guests from overseas and treat them to traditional British Pomp and Ceremony.” The band typically plays graduation parties, weddings and parades, but on this occasion, they were helping to usher in a bold new movement in professional golf.
Mickelson had arrived just minutes earlier, in a packed taxi cab that included him, his bag, his caddie and a security member who has flanked him all week. He greeted the Johnson brothers, Dustin and Austin, who had elected to walk to the tee box instead of ride, then bear-hugged Majed Al Souror, an advisor of the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund and head of the Saudi Golf Federation. Military planes circled in the sky for the second straight day.
Odd as this scene might have seemed to Mickelson just several months ago, it was an appropriate visual for LIV Golf’s coming-out party — pro golf mixed with Saudi Arabian influence, excess wealth and golfers literally embracing the people in charge of those riches. Whether Mickelson cared for the trumpets or not, he had arrived in this moment as a result of his own decisions and actions. As one of the most prominent faces of the LIV Golf Invitational series, Mickelson knew he had signed up for pomp. He also knew he had signed up to send a jolt into the world of professional golf.
You didn’t have to look long or hard to see how different, weird, inventive and unsettling this golf tournament was. There was the player draft Tuesday night, where emcee Kirsty Gallacher’s first message to the hundreds of invitees was essentially the motto of the event: It’s OK to be loud.
CEO and commissioner Greg Norman took the baton from Gallacher, riling up the crowd, promising they were bearing witness to something never before seen. An hour later, the other emcee, Shane O’Donoghue, gushed about the 48 players who, in his mind, had fearlessly committed to the new league. “They have built it,” O’Donoghue said. “And they have come.”
During the three-round affair at swank Centurion, there was endless array of spectator fanfare, creating the look and feel of a golfy state fair. To wit: a 100-foot putt that fans could try their hand at; the prize: a trip to LIV’s 2022 season-ending event, in Miami. The only thing missing was deep-fried Mars bars and golfers on stilts.
A large team of tournament workers were brought in to make it all happen, all of them being paid and, according to a handful with whom I spoke, handsomely so. Twenty-five drivers were hired to drive their London-style taxis twice a day. Their charge: chauffeuring players to their starting holes, then picking them up when the round was over. In between, the cabbies were free to roam as they pleased. “It’s like we’re on holiday,” one driver told me.
Each night of competition was quickly followed by multiple musical acts, which LIV Golf intends to bring to each of its remaining seven events. It all served a reminder of what LIV Golf is defined by: being forcibly different than the PGA Tour, and emanating from extreme wealth. Simmering beneath it all is the controversy over the source of that wealth.
Everything LIV Golf does is fueled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, a pot of a reported $600-plus billion that has underwritten companies all the world, from ride-sharing brand Uber to investment bank Blackstone. Most notably for sports fans, the fund’s money has landed in sporting ventures like Newcastle United Football Club and the McLaren F1 racing group, and now LIV Golf. Critics of the pointed distribution of this wealth allege that the Saudis are using these sports investments to mask the repeated human-rights violations perpetrated under the nation’s current regime, a tactic commonly referred to as “sportswashing.” There was no protesting on the grounds at Centurion, but picketers showed up at the club’s gates, and they have certainly showed up online.
Graeme McDowell addressed the elephant in the press room in his first session of the week with reporters: “If Saudi Arabia wanted to use the game of golf as a way for them to get to where they want to be and they have the resources to accelerate that experience, I think we are proud to help them on that journey using the game of golf and the abilities that we have to help grow the sport and take them to where they want to be.”
Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the PIF director, had a front-row seat at the Tuesday-night draft, where Norman interrupted his own speech to thank Al-Rumayyan individually. On Wednesday, Al-Rumayyan played in the pro-am, as a late addition. When approached by a reporter from the BBC, Al-Rumayyan was happy to answer a single question about why he was on site, but had no interest in discussing the allegations of sportswashing, terminology he was “not sure about.”
The players were also grilled by the press. Martin Kaymer, a soft-spoken German and former world No. 1, repeatedly told a reporter that the reporter was thinking about the league and its huge payouts through a negative lens, and that Kaymer preferred to look at things positively. Mickelson, who has thrived in front of a microphone for 30 years, was never been more awkwardly cautious and calculated than he was this week.
As the event progressed, plenty of other hard questions remained, in particular about the suspensions issued by the PGA Tour on Thursday. The answers from players could be summed up thusly: it doesn’t matter; that’s too bad; I’d like to avoid litigation; or, in the case of Mickelson, I prefer to not comment.
But as with most golf controversies, the more holes that were played, the more the attention turned toward the actual golf. Norman became more visible as the tournament moved forward, appearing on the 1st tee Thursday, as you might expect from a commissioner, but then making his way across the property to be on the 3rd tee Friday. He was checking in on his prize participants, Mickelson and Johnson, and joking with Johnson about who should be assistant commissioner. “We don’t wear suits and ties,” Norman said to Johnson. “No jacket, no ties at LIV.”
Norman was back on the 1st tee Saturday, schmoozing with everyone from social-media influencers to scoring officials. Norman refused to meet with reporters all week, and has acted like a politician, shaking hands, giving hugs, waving to fans. After Norman asked some scoring officials on the 1st tee how their week had been, one of them leaned in for a question.
“Don’t you want to be competing?”
The amount of money at stake was nearly incomprehensible.
“Yes! Yes of course I want to be competing,” Norman said.
He couldn’t have been serious, but played along with the officials as they discussed live scoring and player tracking devices; the officials thanked Norman for helping them get “the best seats in the house.” A leader and his people. After the leaders hit their tee shots, Norman was swarmed by spectators for selfies. Then he retreated back to private quarters.
Four-and-a-half hours later, a party broke out. LIV executives hugged each other like they’d won something. The actual champion was Charl Schwartzel, whose fine play had for the most part suffocated any excitement out of the competition for the last two-and-a-half rounds. Schwartzel’s toddler son was bawling, with his mother doing her best to comfort him, but the youngster’s cries were drowned out by pop music pumping out of the concert speakers. Schwartzel, who had just made more than $4 million, was ushered up on stage, joined by his captain Louis Oosthuizen, and teammates Branden Grace and Hennie Du Plessis.
“This is a good way to show you team selection is crucial,” Oosthuizen said, cradling the team trophy. “Because they could have done this without me.”
But Oosty could not have done it without one fraudulent aspect of the team competition. His team, Stingers GC, had cooked the books slightly.
Earlier in the week, during the first LIV Golf draft, captains were issued a list of 31 available players, not 36, as the draft implied. On stage, Oosthuizen looked down at a laminated sheet that read:
Round 1: Please pick any available player
Round 2: Please pick Charl Schwartzel
Round 3: Please pick Branden Grace
Yep, two of his “picks” were predetermined. Oosthuizen made just one selection, and it ended up being the right one — and each player earned an extra $750,000 as a result.
Du Plessis more than doubled his career earnings, taking home $2.875 million. “We are curious [what his career earnings were before this],” Schwartzel joked afterward.
The champion himself, who had not won worldwide in six years, earned roughly the same amount he had in the last four years. When asked how he felt accepting the money from the Saudi Arabian government, Schwartzel paused for a few beats and then said, “Where the money comes from is not something I’ve ever looked at over my 20-year career. I think if I start digging everywhere where we played, you could find fault in anything.”
Another stumbling answer in a week full of them.
“Money, money, money,” as PGA Tour commissioner wrote in a memo to members this week has made one thing clear: LIV Golf as an organization has major tentacles in the golf world. Less clear is just how long those tentacles are, because LIV Golf is more than just the 17 players now suspended from the PGA Tour, or the 31 others who played this week.
For starters, Ari Fleischer, a former White House press secretary, was brought in to moderate press conferences. The seventh employee of the brand is an event director plucked from Augusta National. LIV’s head of security also hails from ANGC. As the security chief patrolled the borders of the trophy ceremony, Al-Rumayyan was on stage making a grand announcement: If any player cards a 54 in a LIV event, they will earn a $54 million bonus.
Slugger White, a longtime PGA Tour rules official, was lured out of a brief retirement by Norman to manage LIV’s rules team. White has been joined by Brad Fabel, another longtime Tour staffer, perhaps best known for helping new LIV commit Patrick Reed work through a controversial ruling at Torrey Pines in 2021. When LIV Golf reaches the United States, where it will conduct five events this year, White and Fabel’s crew will include a former USGA rules staffer and ex-PGA of America section head.
Point is, Saudi influence doesn’t end with the 48 players in the field this week. Later this week, Centurion will play host to the Aramco Series, on the Women’s European Tour. Aramco is short for Saudi Aramco, the official oil company of Saudi Arabia.
The Saudi sway extends all the way down to Shergo Al Kurdi, an 18-year-old Jordanian who wears a Golf Saudi logo on his hat. Al Kurdi was on the Centurion driving range at 2:30 Saturday afternoon, surrounded by his team. He’s the 1,751st-ranked player in the world, but one of the best from the Middle East. He was in the field as recently as a week ago, his father Musa said, until Mickelson joined on Monday.
“I don’t care what [Mickelson] said — you know, scary mother—-ers,” Musa said. “People make mistakes. When a legend like that arrives, you stand down.”
So Al Kurdi was relegated to being the first LIV reserve, ready to play in the event should any player fall ill or pull an oblique on the range. It didn’t happen, but Al Kurdi’s father says he’s in the LIV Golf Portland field and intends to play. Al Kurdi has 134 mph of clubhead speed, a skill he learned from Bryson DeChambeau, who has spent time tutoring Al Kurdi, hands-on, about how to swing faster. They communicate over text and Instagram DM after meeting years ago at the Saudi International, where the title sponsor is not a company or brand like most every pro tournament in the world. It’s the Public Investment Fund. Pro golf, at this moment, is a web of complicated connections.
A week ago, DeChambeau told the press he wasn’t planning to join LIV: “For me, I personally don’t think that at this point in time I’m in a place in my career where I can risk things like that.” But just seven days later, DeChambeau announced he had joined, signing a multi-year contract worth more than $100 million. Reed’s official announcement came a day later, and a commitment from Pat Perez came soon after.
Just four months ago, Perez decried Saudi influence and Mickelson’s involvement in the league. He said he wouldn’t entertain joining LIV then, but fast-forward to this week — surely the most chaotic week in pro-golf history — and Perez is suddenly calling in to the Saturday broadcast to announce that he had joined.
Perez issued a reminder to the golf world that all things are fluid right now, which is surely of deep concern to the PGA Tour. Long-standing player sponsorships have been stripped. Tour veterans are accepting bans. There are actions and reactions happening daily, and Newton’s Third Law does not apply. We can only assume the next action will take place in a matter of days, at the season’s third major championship, the U.S. Open, near Boston.
As darkness fell on Centurion Club Saturday, LIV staffers popped bottles of champagne into the night. Their work was done and their leader, Greg Norman, stood on stage during the championship ceremony, soaking up the moment.
“Over the years, for 27 years, there’s been a lot of obstacles put in our path,” Norman said. “There’s been a lot of dreams that have been tried to be squashed. But they couldn’t squash us.”
InsideGOLF member exclusive: Join Sean Zak and Dylan Dethier at 11 a.m. Monday for a live conversation about what the first LIV Golf event was like on site, plus what the new league means for the game. Not a member? Join here for only $20/year.