DORAL, Fla. — After the paragliders landed, unfurling flags for Aces GC and Crushers GC, the first-tee emcee set the stage. LIV Golf’s team championship was upon us. The entire season had come down to this, he said. Time to get hyped. Three women ran along the rope line, waving T-shirts in the air, the universal sign to make noise. In unison, amid the thumping beat of Khwezi’s “Cyberpunk 2020,” the emcee got things started.
“Miami, get ready to party,” he said. “This is golf, but louder.”
Then, Talor Gooch, Charles Howell III, Mito Pereira and Patrick Reed teed off one by one to some clapping, some whooping. LIV’s finale — 12 teams playing for a $50 million season-ending purse — was underway, with a cool $14 million to the four-man winning team.
Not long ago, it was thought that this — the 2023 team championship at Trump Doral outside Miami — might serve as LIV’s final resting place. In early June, following the PGA Tour’s formal agreement to partner with the near-$700 billion Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, voices were quick to promote the presumptive demise of the tour’s chief rival.
The deal created a for-profit company combining the commercial interests of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour behind a large cash investment from the PIF. Just as importantly, it forged a ceasefire ending the expensive, prying litigation that neither side wanted. LIV, it seemed, was expendable in the deal. A person involved with the negotiation told The Athletic in June: “I don’t know that it’s going to exist. Because the PIF is not running it. Greg Norman certainly isn’t running it. He’s out of a job. Performance 54 isn’t running it. It’s Jay (Monahan). Like, that’s the deal.”
It was, until it wasn’t.
Four and a half months later, it appears the framework agreement between the tour and the PIF is dead, dying, or, at best, will need to be extended past a Dec. 31 deadline for completion. The PGA Tour is in talks with outside investors, including Endeavor, the entertainment and media agency that owns the UFC and WWE, and other private entities. Publicly, officials from both the tour and the PIF will only say they’re still operating in good faith and remain committed to the framework agreement. Privately, voices on both sides cite heavy doubts building by the day. All indications say the seismic shifts in the future of professional golf are far from settled.
Where does that leave LIV? Golf’s great disruptor is now 22 events into its existence. Staff and executives like to say this year’s 14-event slate was Season 1, while 2022’s eight tournaments should be considered Season 0. That means 2024 will be Year 3, and Season 2, if you follow.
With LIV, things are never exactly as they seem.
Which is why, over the weekend, only four and a half months after a supposed death notice was in the mail, a LIV source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, looked out over the scene at Trump Doral and told me that what was thought to be the end might’ve actually been the beginning. Think about it, he asked me, would the PIF really pour somewhere around a billion dollars into LIV and not keep going?
So, if the framework falls apart, where does LIV go from here, I asked.
“I think we double down.”
As it often goes, Norman, LIV’s polarizing CEO, was front and center over the weekend at Trump Doral. The 68-year-old walked the grounds with Apollo, an English lab with an endearing disposition. Norman shook hands. He flipped hats into the crowd. He puffed his chest in a form-fitting polo. He also, more notably, made his first public comments since both June’s framework agreement, and since PGA Tour officials testified in front of the Senate that he’s disposable. In a brief session with a few reporters on Thursday, Norman said neither he nor LIV are going anywhere.
“As we go into 2024, we’ve got corporations coming in,” he said. “We’ll have them signing up before the end of the year, and we’ll have new players as well.”
So often, the perceptions of LIV’s future are tied directly to its ability to add talented players. At Doral, Phil Mickelson said another “wave” is coming this offseason. Bubba Watson backed him up. “There’s interest,” he said. “People are calling, texting. They are asking for help to try to get in the league. Phil knows it. We all know it. The higher-ups know it, and we are just working through the details.”
Simply more bluster from an operation styled by bluster? Perhaps.
Similar claims were heard around this time last year. At the time, the PGA Tour believed it held the high ground. Legacy matters in golf and it thought it had history, loyalty and morality on its side. Monahan, the tour’s commissioner, continued to call LIV an “irrational threat” from a foreign government marred by human rights violations and ties to 9/11 attackers. Things were trending the tour’s way, including a unifying meeting in Delaware getting key players on the same page.
That 2022-23 offseason, LIV didn’t raise the ante with the kind of mega-upfront-payouts it used to recruit its original 48-man roster. The result was only a trickle of middling additions, no disrespect to Sebastian Munoz or Pereira.
But dynamics are different heading into the 2023-24 offseason. The tour punted the morality card by entering into its framework agreement with PIF and infuriated its membership by making a deal without its approval, resulting in a reshaping of the policy board and addition of Tiger Woods, providing the players with a shift in power. Now, to maintain its talent, the tour is reliant on legacy allegiances, restructured elevated (some of them no-cut) events aimed to funnel money to top players and a newfound partnership with TGL, a venture headed by Woods and Rory McIlroy.
The sums needed to pare away more talent from the PGA Tour today are believed to be massive figures. Two tour agents contacted for this story both said any current high-profile tour player would demand similar sums (or more) to those early LIV enlistees received. While never officially announced, it has been reported that Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Mickelson and perhaps others received payments of more than $100 million each.
But that could be exactly what LIV is prepared to offer.
Last week marked Gary Davidson’s final event as acting COO of LIV. The co-founder of Performance 54, a sports advisory and strategy firm, Davidson came into the post in December 2022, following the departure of Atul Khosla, a longtime sports executive who left amid a wave of senior officials departing the fledgling golf league. At the time, documents obtained by the New York Times suggested LIV faced steep challenges in gaining sustained traction.
Ten months later, the framework agreement has now changed that view. As Davidson puts it, “In terms of long-term planning, it’s opened up a couple of doors and taken away some of the headwinds.” With less pushback, Davidson says, LIV is moving forward in adding new teams in 2023 (from 12 to 13, or 14, or maybe up to 15, the max LIV can field as long as it holds onto its shotgun start formula) and finalizing “long-term commitments” from venues that will host repeat events for the next two or three years. Additionally, changes are being considered in a variety of areas from branding to the broadcast product.
Davidson is stepping aside for Lawrence Burian, a former executive vice president with the Madison Square Garden family of companies who will now oversee LIV’s day-to-day business operations. Burian’s hiring (and his multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract) is the first of several C-suite appointments coming over the next few weeks, according to LIV sources. Having spent much of its existence heavily reliant on outside consultants and contracted firms, LIV should soon have a more formal executive leadership team, including a new chief marketing officer.
Challenges remain steep. LIV’s application to earn world ranking points was recently unanimously rejected by the Official World Golf Ranking. It’s unclear if or when it will reapply. As a result, pathways for LIV players into the majors will continue to dwindle. Davidson said discussions are ongoing for LIV players to receive exemptions into some majors, but such a scenario seems doubtful — the same group that denied the OWGR claim runs the major championships.
So. New executives. New teams. And, potentially, new players.
We were told earlier this summer golf’s turf war was over.
These scenarios suggest otherwise.
Walking off Doral’s 18th green after a pro-am last week, Charles Howell III looked around and acknowledged that life is good. The 44-year-old won three times in 609 PGA Tour appearances over two decades, pulling down just north of $42 million before moving to LIV in 2022. This season, in individual earnings alone, he made just more than $8 million.
Howell was thrilled when news of the framework agreement dropped on June 6. He remembers friends on tour telling him, “Man, you made the right decision.” But that wasn’t the gratification of that day. It was, instead, the feeling of a potential peace treaty coming to fruition, bringing both tours together. It was a feeling that LIV had validity. He felt a page turned.
“Last year was such a whirlwind with all the negative stuff on social media — that’s all obviously calmed down and died away,” Howell said last week. “Now it feels real.”
While the first part is arguable, Howell’s point speaks to the issue at hand. LIV has always been real. The question has been whether it’s what golf fans want.
Team championship week began with a news conference of eight team captains picking opposing teams to face in Friday match play. Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa began things by pitting his Stingers GC team against the lowest-seeded club — Kevin Na’s Iron Heads.
“We are picking the Iron Heads,” Oosthuizen said.
“We have Stingers versus Iron Heads!” the moderator exclaimed. “All right, Louis, talk us through the decision. Why did you pick the Iron Heads? You don’t have to be kind! You can have a little fun!”
Asking Louis Oosthuizen to talk smack is like asking a tree to grow faster. The 41-year-old looked around, expressionless.
“I think we’re happy with that selection and didn’t really want to play any of the other teams,” he responded.
It’s something that comes with so much of LIV — this constant, thirsty desire to manufacture smoke that’s not there. To make golf louder, simply play music. That’s how I came to find 2021 U.S. Amateur champion James Piot standing over his final opening tee shot (for now) on LIV in front of maybe 30 people with Rihanna’s “Please Don’t Stop the Music” blasting from a speaker 10 feet behind him.
Swathes of Trump Doral were nearly empty last week. On Friday, a herd of bodies moved along following a match between Phil Mickelson and Koepka. Other parts of the course looked like they were hosting a practice round.
Larger crowds came for the weekend, but it was exceedingly difficult to decipher audience from attendees. As one longtime observer put it: “More people are paid to be here, than pay to be here.”
Everyone from LIV staff, to executives, to content producers, to fans say they enjoy the golf. They say everyone is having a good time. They ask, what’s wrong with that? What’s wrong with something different? Why the hate?
Yet many of those same voices privately acknowledge mass appeal seems miles away. And that, sure, the league is struggling for TV viewership and lacks major corporate sponsorship. And, yeah, there’s a major issue with delivering a show that matches the hype.
By the end of the weekend, Howell, DeChambeau and Crushers GC were joined on-stage by team championship runner-up, RangeGoats GC. Much of this — the names, the logos, much of the bit — was panned early in LIV’s existence. If onlookers wanted to think this was all a joke or non-serious competition, they were given plenty of chum. It’s unclear how married the tour is to maintaining all of its early brandings.
None of that was on anyone’s mind at Doral late Sunday, not amid the spraying champagne, and the confetti cannons, and the smoke machines. And not with Swedish DJ Alesso warming up to take the stage.
But was anyone else watching? LIV, by way of the PIF, can spend all the money it wants, and double down or triple down on its billion-dollar investment, but it still has to manufacture a product that people want. LIV loyalists will blame the league’s lack of connection to a broader audience on everything from “corporate media” to the hypocrisy of the PGA Tour to political leanings, but it’s on the organization to create something real. Golf that people care about.
A week before Doral, Chase Koepka, the younger brother of five-time major winner and LIV alpha Brooks Koepka, was trailed by cameras in Saudi Arabia. Formerly a journeyman searching for status on tours in the U.S. and abroad, Chase followed his brother to LIV, cashing in on an upfront payout (significantly smaller than his brother’s $100 million-plus deal, but certainly over seven figures) and claiming one of four spots on Brooks’ team (Smash GC).
Chase finished 27th in the league’s individual 2022 standings, ahead of known PGA Tour names like Ian Poulter, Phil Mickelson, Kevin Na, Harold Varner III, Graeme McDowell and Marc Leishman. He felt validated. A thankless road led to this.
With the 2023 season, LIV introduced the idea of relegation. Just as PGA Tour players can lose their cards with poor play, four players at the bottom of LIV’s season-long points list (Nos. 45-48) are relegated unless they have a contract for the following year. Heading to Royal Greens Golf & Country Club in King Abdullah Economic City, along the Red Sea coast, Chase found himself needing a strong week to climb out of the bottom four.
Instead, he stumbled to a last-place finish. Rounds of 73-69-74. The younger Koepka lost his spot on LIV, while his brother, only a few months removed from winning the PGA Championship, won LIV Jeddah in a playoff victory over Gooch. Chase was booked for relegation, along with Piot, Jed Morgan and Sihwan Kim.
At Doral, Chase knew he was playing his final event for both his brother’s team and LIV — now, and quite possibly, forever. We spoke on a practice green one afternoon last week. At 29, he sounded like a guy facing the last rites of his career. Unsentimental honesty.
“It’s just been a really, really tough year,” he told me. “It’s not been fun — sitting there, grinding it out, working 8-10 hours a day, just trying not to finish in last place. I mean, that’s not fun. It wears on you. But that’s what it’s been.”
Chase said he plans to step away and reevaluate things after the season. The feeling of losing an invisible war is what every golfer relates to. That’s why LIV’s cameras followed Chase at Jeddah. The story. He understood the inherent drama. “I think that’s something cool,” he explained. “They should document that. You know, it sucks getting relegated. I wasn’t happy about it.”
Even with its many issues, LIV’s format can create storylines that resonate.
The team element is LIV’s bargaining chip and the league knows it. The format can deliver captivating play (the Crushers’ win, via an insane Dechambeau recovery shot on Doral’s 17th hole, was legitimately interesting golf), while the drama of roster management is inherently intriguing. There’s a reason the NBA offseason is a cause célèbre the league milks for all available attention.
“There’s a lot that will be going on, with our trades and transfers, and the draft, and the promotions event, and finishing off the international series schedule,” said Davidson, the outgoing COO, who will still maintain a role with LIV while returning to Performance 54. “We want to make sure that there’s a lot of talking points — that there’s a lot of news over the next three months.”
But will LIV golfers be treated like athletes? Reports of players being released and traded? Legitimate roster moves? Guys cutting ties? Things that might not be in the best interest of one’s brand? It’d maybe be intriguing to follow. Or at least something new in golf. But does anyone really expect a league catered exclusively toward money and fun and brands to embrace any discrediting of its own marquee players? Captains are safe from relegation, after all. Thankfully for Lee Westwood and Martin Kaymer.
A subplot at Doral was an ongoing rift between Brooks Koepka and Matthew Wolff, a 24-year-old struggling to relocate prodigious talent that made him a major commodity for LIV. Wolff is on Koepka’s team and bitterness between the two has played out in public. Koepka has questioned Wolff’s work ethic and openly criticized his play. This week, he said of Wolff: “Sometimes you can’t help people that don’t want help.”
The natural drama of team play on display. At the season-ending tournament, no less. An NFL locker room would be buzzing with attention and intrigue.
In this setting, though? LIV officials downplayed the turmoil. Wolff denied interviews all week, blowing past the few reporters there to find a story. What might’ve been interesting was moot.
The irony? The guy leaving LIV is the one who says this is what the league needs.
“There’s a lot happening behind closed doors, between teammates,” said Chase Koepka, who, with his own struggles, admits to relating to Wolff as much as he does his brother. “That’s what people don’t see. If there’s anything I could add (to what LIV does), it’d be letting people see more of those stories — what actually is going on.”
Mercedes and BMWs and Range Rovers lined up outside the hotel at Trump Doral late Sunday, picking up LIV players and their families, LIV associates, those connected by business or politics, and who knows who else. One by one, they all left smiling. As one agent to multiple high-profile professional golfers said of the vibe at Doral: “I’ve never seen that many happy, wealthy people in my life.”
Plenty on the PGA Tour have noticed. How many will move over? Time will tell. Three of LIV’s available 48 roster spots for 2024 will be filled by an open promotions event scheduled for December at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, while a fourth card will go to Asian Tour’s International Series Order of Merit winner Andy Ogletree. Beyond that, according to a LIV source, fewer than three-to-five roster available spots are expected to come from players whose contracts won’t be renewed. If additional teams are added, four, eight or even 12 new openings could be created.
Norman was asked last week what might entice a tour player to move to LIV. He responded, “It’s the franchise, it’s the team spirit and also health and wellness.” In truth, it’s still probably the money. It has not gone unnoticed what Gooch, a 31-year-old with one PGA Tour win in 123 career starts, did this season. After receiving an eight-figure upfront payment to join LIV in 2022, Gooch won three times and made $35 million in individual prize money and bonuses this season.
At the same time, Gooch has plummeted to No. 214 in the OWGR and may not have a spot in multiple majors next year.
Talk about a cost–benefit analysis.
A few LIV players declined to talk about their tour on the way out the door at Doral. Some said there was nothing else to say. One said he’d already had too much to drink and didn’t think public comments were a good idea. A solid decision. Why mess with a good time? A parking attendant waved to each player, saying, “See you next year!”
Indeed, regardless how you feel about LIV, this will happen all over again in 2024. And the next few months could very well bring a repeat of the chaos that transpired in the summer of 2022, back when Brooks, and Phil, and DJ all made the jump. Even if that torrent doesn’t come, LIV will still play on. As it very well may in 2025. And in 2026. And at least one player is known to be signed through 2027.
So this is not, despite what was thought earlier this summer, going away.
Question is, what version of LIV will return? Will it find a way to be about golf? And will anyone ever care?
(Illustration: John Bradford / The Athletic; photos: Matthew Lewis, Mike Ehrmann, Quinn Harris / Getty Images; Jared C. Tilton / LIV Golf)