What’s a LIV Golf event *really* like? I spent 3 days at one to find out
Wednesday: This doesn’t feel like a golf tournament.
Thursday: This doesn’t feel like a golf tournament.
(Friday and Saturday: I didn’t watch any golf.)
Sunday: Oh wow, this feels like a golf tournament.
I haven’t exactly been quiet about my general skepticism toward LIV Golf. The league has, after all, been an easy target. Take the recent announcement from LIV about its shorts policy. The press release read: “It’s believed to be the first time an elite professional golf league has allowed shorts to be worn during a round.” My immediate reaction was: What, so they don’t consider the LPGA to be an elite professional golf league?
There have been other little misses. I’ve had a tough time getting into the events’ YouTube broadcasts. I scoffed at Talor Gooch comparing his team’s LIV victory at Pumpkin Ridge to a Ryder Cup win and chuckled when an announcer said “Joaquin Lahiri” instead of “Anirban Lahiri.” And then there’s the considerable human-rights issues that come with the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia funding the league, which has created a divide in men’s golf.
I arrived at The International, the site of LIV Golf’s Boston event, for Wednesday’s pressers and practice rounds with little idea about what to expect. I’ve been to my fair share of PGA Tour and high-level amateur events but knew this would be different. But different how?
It was easy to confirm my biases early in the week. LIV doesn’t allow spectators for practice rounds or pro-ams, so The International felt empty. While there were some notable moments from the Harold Varner-Bubba Watson shared press conference — Varner was brutally honest about how tough the first 24 hours were in regard to social comments and feedback after committing to LIV — there were a handful of “what is going on?” moments for me, too.
A few guys in the media center (comedians, I think?) had some fun with their questions and asked Watson, “Since you have an injury right now, do you think there’s a chance maybe I could play for you? I’m like a 6 handicap, so I could hold up, maybe be like a 4 on a good day.” Later, the same guys asked Cameron Smith if he would “try to buy Florida” and about his hair routine. I tried to think about what would happen if someone asked major champions those same questions at, say, the Arnold Palmer Invitational. But this isn’t Bay Hill, nor does LIV want it to be.
After Wednesday’s pressers, I headed out to the course. I thought I was being punk’d. Aside from workers setting up a stage and LIV guest village, the course was empty. Turned out, the players weren’t starting their practice rounds until later in the afternoon. l walked back to the range and was relieved to find players there, alongside a handful of military veterans, whom LIV had invited for the day. I talked to a few vets who were loving the access. They were inside the ropes, standing just a few feet behind Cameron Smith on the range. “How cool is this?” one said. He had been to a handful of pro tournaments, but never this close. Thirty seconds later, he was asking a pro for a photo and an autograph while the player switched clubs.
The whole thing felt like a private event for which I had arrived awkwardly early.
I returned to The International on Thursday. Based on festive social-media footage from the previous night’s LIV gala, I was hoping for a bit more action at the course. I met a member of the club who was caddying in the pro-am who told me that the membership was psyched about the event. He and his wife were volunteering for the week, and a few members had rented out their houses for players to stay in. I did what I usually do at events, walking most of the course forward and then turning around, walking it backward back toward No. 1, catching a shot or two from each group along the way.
I passed by Phil Mickelson’s group and learned that I share a mutual friend with one of the amateurs in his group. I walked two holes with him and his wife. They raved about the pairing party, and understandably so: They got the third pick of the night and discovered no one had chosen Phil yet. They were ecstatic at the opportunity to play with Mickelson and said he was the “nicest guy ever.” Martin Kaymer had played in a previous pro-am with the other amateur in the group, who was rocking a J.P. McManus Pro-Am bag. When a spot opened up, Kaymer invited him back to play this week.
Phil got pulled aside to answer some questions for a video on the tee box of a par-3 and was definitely enjoying this particular hit. His energy was high and he was fully engaged. I wondered what it was like for him to go from playing all of his practice rounds and pro-ams in front of thousands of eager fans to no one at all. I continued my trek back to the media center. On the way, I ran into another amateur. He gestured to his group. “Don’t the pros just seem so much happier here?” he asked. It’s a point everyone in attendance delights in making.
I lost my bearings somewhere between the 3rd tee box and the 1st green (The International is quite a walk!), so I asked two guys for directions. They were LIV employees who looked to be in their early- to mid-twenties. It was their first week on the job. One came from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, the other from the finance world. They were mostly there to observe the scene, just like I was. The whole us-vs.-them thing doesn’t exist at LIV events. After all, those on the ground assume everyone else there is all in.
I had had a conflict on Friday and Saturday, so I didn’t go to the tournament. Let’s fast-forward to Sunday morning.
I arrived at about 10:30 a.m. Because the shotgun start wasn’t until after 1, I figured I’d be one of the first people on site. Wrong. The media lot was full, as was the fan zone, and people were milling all around the range. This was a full hour before any of the players even headed out. It was a crisp morning, music was playing, fans were playing putting and chipping games and the mood was up. It’s worth noting that big-time Tour events are electric on Sunday mornings, too, but this exceeded my expectations for LIV. It felt like a college football tailgate.
The practice area started to fill up just before noon. I was curious how it’d be with every player needing to use the practice facilities at the same time, but with a 48-player field, it worked. No one had to wait for a spot on the range or a hole on the green. Players were sorted by team on the range, and the mood felt relaxed. Cameron Smith went over to Lee Westwood and tried to pull down his socks. Smith jammed to the music playing over the speaker, and a few of the caddies lingered together. Matt Jones took a few moments to inspect Smith’s divot pattern (I learned he hits in a horizontal line as opposed to a vertical one). The ropes were fully lined with spectators, probably two people deep by the putting green and at least four deep by the range.
“Golfers and caddies, you have five minutes until the range closes and it’s time to go to your carts to head out to your starting hole.”
The emcee was doing his thing. He announced that Diplo would be performing after the round (and that they’d be selecting a lucky winner for a meet and greet, provided you used the correct hashtag). This part reminded me a bit of halftime at a college basketball game. He reminded spectators to check out the merchandise tent and even offered directions to the players.
“Golfers and caddies, the range is now closed. Please head to your carts to be driven out to your starting hole.”
The players headed over to the left side of the range to hop into their carts, and I made my way over to the 1st tee. It was early afternoon and officially hot out. I didn’t count by hand, but I’d guess there were a few hundred people around the tee box and lining the 1st fairway. The gender ratio seemed to be close to 1:1, which I don’t think I’ve ever seen at a golf tournament before. I also was surprised to see the fans skewed younger than your average Tour event, a point the pros repeatedly hit on later. I saw a lot of college golf shirts from nearby Boston schools as well as parents with young kids. A volunteer told me they capped the event somewhere between 5,500 and 6,000 fans.
There were also at least 30 people inside the ropes. I found myself standing next to Bubba Watson as he mixed it up with fans and got people pumped up. Some sort of smoke machine went off in the middle of the fairway as the first group off No. 1, which included Matthew Wolff, made its way to the tee. A few skydivers appeared. People were cheering, and little kids were loving it. There was a huge countdown from 10 to the shotgun start, and people went nuts after reaching zero. It was like the fratty Massachusetts countryside’s answer to Times Square at New Year’s.
While the rowdiest, frattiest fans may be hushed at other events, they were fully embraced at LIV Boston. When a videographer saw one group of bros going nuts, he encouraged them to dial it up a notch while he recorded. The music is turned down slightly when players tee off, but it definitely doesn’t stop.
Dustin Johnson, Joaquin Niemann and Talor Gooch came to the 1st tee next. LIV has the last two groups go off the 1st hole to make for a better finishing stretch. The crowd had stayed in place after the first group teed off, waiting around to see these guys. I’ve spent a lot of time watching Johnson play golf, and something was different this time: I have never seen him talk this much. He and Greg Norman stood together, catching up and cracking jokes. Norman reached into DJ’s bag at one point to take a swing with his 9-wood, a club he was curious about.
I stood on the 1st tee for a couple hours to watch groups come through. There was at least 15 minutes of waiting time in between each group, which felt like a slightly longer interval than normal but made sense for a shotgun start. I chatted with the volunteer who was in charge of the 1st tee; this was her third LIV event. She was in her 50s, wore a Trump golf shirt and has spent much time around golf. She has volunteered at the Honda Classic for years and decided to do some LIV events this year.
“Take this long and we’ll be here all effin’ day, right, Harold?”
Oh no. This won’t be good. The first fan misdemeanor of the day occurred when Ian Poulter stepped off his tee shot at No. 1, and an over-served man delivered this observation to Harold Varner, who was playing in Poulter’s group. I anxiously awaited Poulter’s reaction. He walked to his bag, put away his driver and fired back at the fan with a choice two-word phrase.
The volunteer told me about a fan who shouted to Patrick Reed on Friday, “Hey, make sure to mark your ball this week!” Reed, the volunteer said, had the fan escorted off the property.
I waited a while for Phil and his group to make their way to the 1st tee. I expected there to be a huge crowd with him, but there wasn’t. Maybe that was due to his place on the leaderboard, or the distance from the 18th green to the 1st tee. I met a golf influencer who LIV had brought in to cover the action via Instagram, and she told me to check out the back nine.
I headed to the 18th hole, which has an amphitheater green. About 150 people were sitting there watching. I heard a rumor that a Saudi prince was in one of the private boxes above the green as well.
I had to get back to work (my primary role at GOLF is in social media) so I settled in front of my computer to watch the final holes via the YouTube broadcast. I think any golf fan would have been excited to see DJ’s putt drop on the first playoff hole.
I’m glad I went back on Sunday because it allowed me to see LIV in action, to feel the energy of the event. It did have a different vibe than a typical tournament; the music guaranteed that. LIV’s focus is clearly on fan enjoyment and engagement.
I left LIV Boston with a different perspective on the whole thing. I’m not overly enamored with Greg Norman. I don’t like the way this has fractured the PGA Tour. I have serious misgivings about the source of LIV’s money. And (shoutout to Judge Freeman) I think the LIV players’ lawsuit is a little ridiculous. I was surprised to hear how many players believe they’ll tee it up on the PGA Tour again.
But it was eye-opening to see LIV’s model at work. As a spectator experience, the league undoubtedly is a draw for fans who want to cut loose and enjoy getting a little rowdy. The fan village was an easy win for kids, as were the skydivers and thumping music.
Someone asked me if I’d compare my experience at The International to what I’ve seen when the Harlem Globetrotters come to town. From a festivities and celebrations standpoint, maybe. But the Globetrotters aren’t trying to replace the NBA, nor do they have some of the biggest talents in their sport. LIV Golf does. And that’s what makes its future so complex.