LIV is bad for the game of golf

BOLTON, MASSACHUSETTS - SEPTEMBER 04: Greg Norman, CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf, presents the trophy to Team Captain Dustin Johnson of 4 Aces GC on the podium during Day Three of the LIV Golf Invitational - Boston at The Oaks golf course at The International on September 04, 2022 in Bolton, Massachusetts. (Photo by Joe Scarnici/LIV Golf via Getty Images)

At times on Sunday, the LIV Golf Invitational Boston looked a lot like a charity scramble at the local country club: Guys were playing in shorts, missing only a cigar and a cold beer. Lee Westwood, who had a tremendous final round to give himself a chance to win, dropped a lob wedge from inside 100 yards on the final hole well short into a greenside bunker. Dustin Johnson, who eventually won, pulled his approach on the last 40 yards left of the green into the woods.

Matthew Wolff left a lengthy putt short and loudly shouted “F***!” when it came up eight feet short. He later broke his putter in anger and was forced to finish putting with a wedge.

At other moments, the tournament appeared to be just what it was advertised to be — a collection of some of the greatest golfers in the world playing brilliantly for a massive $4 million first prize at the Oaks course at The International Club in Bolton.

Johnson won it with an eagle on the first hole of the playoff, jamming in a 40-footer. The ball was going hard and hit the back of the hole. It bounced in the air and dropped in, eliminating Joaquin Niemann and Anirban Lahiri.

There is plenty to like about LIV. Any tour that has players the caliber of Johnson, Joaquin Niemann and Cameron Smith, among others, is one that must be taken seriously.

The issue with it is that it wasn’t really needed, and was the creation of Greg Norman, who has held a long grudge against the PGA Tour. He campaigned for nearly three decades to start a world tour and got it when he convinced the Saudis to finance his idea.

The Saudis are trying to use high-profile sporting events — golf, boxing, pro wrestling and auto racing, among them — to change the perception of their country and many of its human rights atrocities. It’s been dubbed “sportswashing,” though it’s probably washing nothing away.

LIV has offered mind-boggling sums of money to players to leave the PGA Tour and sign with it. Tiger Woods reportedly turned down somewhere in the neighborhood of $800 million.

Most of the LIV signees have hypocritically insisted they’ve done it to grow the game of golf, which is a bit of sportswashing of their own. Only Harold Varner III outright admitted to his reason for signing with LIV: the money was too good to turn down.

Varner was a middling PGA Tour player who was one of the nicest and most accommodating golfers in the world. He didn’t grow up rich and privileged and played golf as a means to better his life.

“I went to college and I didn’t even know what the U.S. [Amateur] was,” Varner said in his pre-tournament media session. “So like golf’s never been a way for me to get my name on a trophy. It was a way for me to get out. I played golf so I could go to college. I would not have been able to go to college without playing golf. And then I turned pro because my brain wasn’t smart enough to work 9 to 5 and still make the same amount of money. … I’m actually super proud I made a decision based off of what I believe in. … It was on me and that’s what men do: They provide, protect and try to do more, like any other job.”

It’s easy to take the moral high ground and say you’d turn the money down that the LIV players accepted when the check's not in front of you.

It’s another thing when you’re one of the greatest golfers in the world and it’s a very real possibility to land $75 million or $100 million for nothing more than signing your name to a contract to play golf for a different tour. That changes life for one’s family for generations.

But the thing about LIV is that it wasn’t needed. The PGA Tour was delivering a sensational product, with superb players under 25, veterans who were among the greatest in the game’s history and stakes that were very real.

There’s no cut on LIV, the tournaments are only 54 holes and with guaranteed checks for even the last-place finisher there doesn’t seem to be anything for them to play for. On the PGA Tour, it might have been qualifying for The Masters, or getting into the season-ending playoffs, or keeping one’s Tour card. But whatever the situation was, there were significant stakes.

The players at LIV aren’t, as of the moment, accumulating Official World Golf Ranking points and so that will mean a moment will come when many of them won’t be able to play in the majors. That doesn’t sit well with Bubba Watson, a two-time Masters champion who won 12 times on the PGA Tour.

“The No. 2 player in the world [Smith] is now here so if you’re going to try to see the best players in the world, then you should have World Ranking points [for LIV events] because these are the best players in the world here, just like everywhere else across the world,” Watson said. “ … If you’re going to say you’re competing against the best, you’ve got to have a world ranking system.”

LIV’s birth means there are two tours with great players but neither is near what the PGA Tour has been. One of the reasons the majors as well as bigger PGA Tour events like The Players, the Memorial and Bay Hill were so big is that nearly all of the elite players joined the field.

The depth of both tours is now lacking.

Aces player Dustin Johnson, left, sprays sparkling wine on teammate Pat Perez as they celebrate on the stage after winning the team competition at the LIV Golf Invitational-Boston tournament, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in Bolton, Mass. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)
Aces player Dustin Johnson, left, sprays sparkling wine on teammate Pat Perez as they celebrate on the stage after winning the team competition at the LIV Golf Invitational-Boston tournament, Sunday, Sept. 4, 2022, in Bolton, Mass. (AP Photo/Mary Schwalm) (ASSOCIATED PRESS)

There’s no turning back now that there are two major tours competing for top players and for the golf fans’ attention. And rather than help grow the game of golf, the presence of the LIV Golf International Series could wind up hurting it significantly.

Many of us have lived through the NFL versus the AFL and later, the NFL versus the USFL, as well as the NBA versus the ABA, and the NHL versus the WHA.

Each of the existing leagues, the NFL, the NBA and the NHL, not only survived, but came out on the other side the better for it. Rules were changed in each of those sports to make the games better, more competitive and more entertaining. The new leagues forced expansion to new cities and television programming and production techniques were enhanced.

It’s unlikely golf is going to come out of this better, though. The bottom of the LIV fields are incredibly weak, but the last place finisher Sunday still got $120,000. That was Sihwan Kim, who opened with an 87 on Friday that including a back-nine 50. He was 24 shots better on Saturday, shooting 63, but finished with a 76 on Sunday. He was 31 shots out of the playoff and made more money for that than most Americans will make this year.

That has to impact the players’ motivation level, particularly when there’s no lure of getting into the majors if the world golf rankings issue isn’t changed.

And if LIV signs, oh, 10 or 15 more players to make its 48-man fields deeper, that will just take that many more players who could potentially win out of a PGA Tour field.

The game, and its growth, will be less because of it.