Will the Saudi-funded Liv Golf attract fans?

Phil Mickelson is the biggest name that pulled LIV Golf away from the PGA.

Phil Mickelson is the biggest name LIV Golf withdrew from the PGA.
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The LIV Invitational Golf Series was a hindrance to a PGA Tour already struggling to find its next superstar. LIV, which is funded with blood money from the Saudi Arabian state fund, has sparked a mini exodus of several PGA stars. By offering boatloads of cash for gigs, LIV has become a pseudo-pension fund. But how durable is the LIV series? Golf enthusiasts already have a plethora of options. Is LIV coming for the throne of the PGA or a fad? Golf generally does not attract young, forward-looking fans. They embrace tradition.

LIV Golf joins the Saudi Arabia-funded Premiere Golf League, the European Tour and the PGA as the top professional golf tours in the world. LIV threatens to turn golf into boxing with its fragmented field, its surplus of championships and an assortment of matches or tournaments that fans have no visceral connection to.

There are already dozens of golf tournaments that no one is watching. Tiger Woods is the biggest draw in golf and he turned down a high nine figure offer from the LIV series, presumably to win a few more majors. For certain golfers, some of whom are called Phil, this is a way to get rich, money to recoup gambling debts, and have enough cash in your pocket before interest rates drop. Mickelson has gambled before and he has lost bigger. The LIV Invitational Series will be funded for the next three years and will not run a full program for three years. Meanwhile, the PGA Tour continues as usual. Will fans really rave about Dustin Johnson and Bryson Dechambeau at a third-rate event in London?

Unlike the European Super League which attempted to topple the Champions League, golfers are not employed by decades-old sports establishments such as Liverpool or Chelsea. They are essentially gilded independent contractors. What happens when LIV golfers realize they are disappearing from the public consciousness? For example, there is already a Saudi Arabia-backed event on the Asian Tour that lacks the pageantry of the PGA. Dustin Johnson won the inaugural PIF Saudi International event in 2019 when it was part of the European Tour, but nobody cares. He might as well have won a match play event with Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes. Fans won’t care as much about LIV as The Masters or The PGA Championship.

PGA Championship ratings fell 20 percent this year, as Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods either battled it out or kept their distance in Mickelson’s case. The legacy of the PGA Tour is a big part of its appeal in the absence of a historically dominant champion drawing eyeballs to its tournaments. Few care who wins the Canadian Open next week, but Jack Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament has meaning. The stars will all appear for the majors.

LIV Golf is a competition without a built-in constituency. The American public is not attached to these random tournaments, just as NBA fans wouldn’t care about mid-season cup championships. The LIV series will essentially be seen as exhibition wave. The question is, what happens to the golfers who have given up on the PGA Tour, like Mickelson or Bryson DeChambeau, once the novelty wears off?

It would be one thing if LIV Golf reinvented the wheel. Shotgun formats in which players all start from different holes at once, however, are a superficial change that won’t change the viewing experience much. The 54-hole format is great, but the divided competition between the PGA and LIV makes for a divided audience for both tours. Whether this becomes a fad or a professional mainstay will be determined by whether Saudi money can waste decades of knowledge buying PGA fans too.