BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Brooks Koepka, the four-time major golf champion, was riding in a golf cart Saturday with his wife, Jena Sims, sitting on his lap, both laughing as the cart headed for the golf course.
It was a nice snapshot of summer in New Jersey.
But what set this scene apart was the fact that Koepka was roughly two minutes away from teeing off in the second round of the LIV Golf event at Trump Bedminster Golf Club. Typically, the buildup to the first shot at a professional golf tournament is tense, anxious and pressure-filled. After all, a seven-figure payday is on the line.
The lighthearted Koepka-Sims cart ride, while harmless fun, underscored the impact of guaranteed nine-figure contracts earned by top players on the upstart, Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour. Koepka reportedly received more than $100 million to join the breakaway circuit.
No wonder he and his wife were giggling.
As LIV Golf completed its third event this year on Sunday, there was an unmistakable carefree air to the undertaking, a sense that everybody had already gotten their money. That’s because dozens had, and even the player who finished last was assured a $120,000 payout (with the travel and lodging expenses for top players reimbursed).
Henrik Stenson won the tournament and earned $4 million.
Still, for all the focus on the sumptuous prize money, the LIV Golf experience has been illuminating and edifying for professional golf in other less avaricious ways. The vibe from Friday to Sunday in northwestern New Jersey was decidedly younger, less stuffy and clearly more open to experimentation than on the established PGA Tour. That meant blaring high-energy music even as golfers tried to executive devilish putts or challenging chips. The Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party!)” serenaded Dustin Johnson ($125 million upfront payment) at a high volume as he teed off on the first tee Sunday.
His shot landed in a bunker.
But many fans felt energized in the environment.
“You go to a traditional golf tournament and they’re constantly telling you to shut up,” Patrick Shields, who lives in Hackensack, N.J., said next to the 16th tee. “It is a sporting event, right?”
LIV Golf on-course volunteers, however, did carry crowd control placards meant to quiet fans, as is customary on the PGA Tour, too. The placards, held overhead, read, “Zip it,” or “Shhhh.”
Although, just as relevant, the volunteers never had to deal with sizable crowds. The attendance for Sunday’s final round was substantially improved from the meager gatherings that turned out for the first two rounds — often there had been only about 30 people surrounding a green — but the total number of fans on the grounds Sunday was no more than several thousand.
A Quick Guide to the LIV Golf Series
A new series. The launch of new Saudi-financed LIV Golf series has resurfaced longstanding questions about athletes’ moral obligations and their desire to compete and earn money. Here’s what to know:
What is LIV Golf? The series is an upstart professional golf circuit bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund. Its organizers hope to position it as a player-power-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, which has been the highest level of pro golf for nearly a century.
Why is the new series controversial? The event has created sparks within golf for upending the traditions and strictures of how the game is played. It has also become a lightning rod for human rights campaigners who accuse Saudi Arabia of using sports to launder its reputation.
Who is playing it? Many of the biggest names in golf, such as Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, have stayed away from LIV Golf. But several big names and former major champions, including Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Sergio García, joined. Henrik Stenson of Sweden, who was supposed to lead Europe’s team at the 2023 Ryder Cup, was removed as captain after announcing his move to the series.
What is attracting the players? The LIV Golf events are the richest tournaments in golf history. The first tournament’s total purse was $25 million, and the winner’s share was $4 million. The last-place finisher at each event was guaranteed $120,000. That is on top of the appearance fees and nine-figure signing-on payouts some players have accepted.
How has the PGA Tour responded to the rise of LIV Golf? The PGA Tour signaled months ago that it would take action against any of its players who joined the new tour after it denied them the releases to participate in other events it requires. In June, it suspended several PGA Tour members among the LIV Golf players. The Justice Department later announced that it was investigating the PGA Tour for anticompetitive behavior.
An average PGA Tour event draws about 20,000 fans daily. LIV Golf officials declined to announce attendance figures. Tellingly, a weekend pass to the event could be bought for $2 on the secondary ticket market. The rebel circuit’s chief financial backing, which is the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, could certainly have played a part in the modest fan turnouts. In the event’s opening seconds Friday, as Phil Mickelson prepared to strike his first shot, he was heckled by somebody who yelled: “Do it for the Saudi royal family.”
Overall, the new tour is also, so far at least, lacking enough big-name golfers to attract a large crowd. Mickelson is a draw, but a limited one since he has played the worst golf of his luminous career since choosing to align with the rebel circuit. And after Koepka, Johnson, a few golfers past their primes and Bryson DeChambeau, who has also been struggling to contend, the average golf fan looking at the leaderboard this weekend might have been confused.
On the ninth hole Saturday, Justin Harding, who is ranked 123rd in the world, hit his golf ball over the green, where it came to rest near a mammoth concession stand bar. Venues selling alcohol were well attended for the three days, and because Harding faced a difficult uphill chip to the green, about 20 spectators spilled out of the bar to stand almost next to Harding as he attempted his rescue.
After Harding deftly pitched to within three feet of the hole and began to walk away, a young boy nearby turned and asked: “Dad, who is that?”
Said the father: “I have no idea.”
It can be chalked up to growing pains, and LIV Golf officials have also been privately insisting that the real key to success is generating appeal for the team element of the competitions, which go on concurrently with the individual contest. They envision four-man teams, some built along nationalistic lines like a collection of Australians, Japanese, Englishmen, South Africans. This could, the theory goes, help sell the LIV tour globally.
At the small merchandise trailer in the event’s fan village, which had the laid-back feel of a county fair, the sales racks were packed with T-shirts, hats and golf shirts promoting the team names: Aces, Crushers and Majesticks, etc.
But there is no precedent of American golf fans rooting for teams of players of any kind except in the biennial Ryder and Presidents Cups. That could change, but on Sunday, the merchandise trailer racks still had plenty of team apparel available. The best sellers had been a T-shirt embossed with “Bedminster” and a white LIV Golf cap.
It is also likely that once the primary PGA Tour season ends in late August, there will be another wave of defectors to the breakaway circuit, which will continue to host moneyed events around the world until late October. And then all eyes will turn to Augusta National Golf Club, which conducts the Masters in April. There have been signals, as there have been within the governing bodies of other major championships, that many LIV golfers may not be especially welcome in Augusta.
Or by then, would the rival tours have begun some kind of negotiations that could lead to coexistence?
Late Sunday afternoon, as another LIV series event was concluding, a cavalcade of golf carts was preparing to whisk players back to the clubhouse. Not everyone would be laughing on the way, but no one would go home with empty pockets.