If the last 12 months of professional golf were defined by the PGA Tour fending off an existential challenge from LIV Golf and its endless supply of Saudi money, the next 12 are going to be a referendum on LIV itself and the product it puts out for the world to see.
Based on last weekend’s LIV season-opening event in Mexico, the PGA Tour doesn’t have much more to worry about. Out of its start-up phase but still in its infancy, the reality of LIV Golf is that it may have already peaked.
What, the Charles Howell III vs. Peter Uihlein duel didn’t capture your imagination? You weren’t alone. John Ourand of Sports Business Journal reported that the overnight rating for Saturday’s LIV Golf debut on the CW Network was a .2 in 26 metered markets. That is a very bad number, suggesting LIV drew a smaller audience than CW staples like “World’s Funniest Animals.”
Can you really call it “Golf But Louder” when you’d need a stethoscope to determine if this tour even has a pulse?
On a weekend where the PGA Tour put forth arguably its weakest field of the season at the Honda Classic, and with LIV widely available on American television for the first time, this was a prime test case to see whether LIV could control the discourse and start to cash in on the star power it bought last year.
Not only did LIV seemingly fail to take any market share away from the PGA Tour, but its weekend broadcasts were also a perfect representation of why it’s not going to.
In the end, from the standpoint of the viewer, LIV is a solution in search of a problem that never really existed in the first place.
From the constant thump-thump-thump of electronic dance music in the background to the significant amount of time spent on the team aspect of LIV events to the disorienting shotgun start format, it’s just not a great watch. Howell’s march toward victory — which could have been framed as a feel-good story on its own — almost seemed secondary to some of the set pieces and gags that LIV trotted out, like airing tweets praising the league and reigning British Open champion Cameron Smith drinking a beer out of a shoe.
Oh, and as for the team results, which only add confusion to what should be a fairly straightforward competition, Bubba Watson said in a pre-round interview that the goal was “trying to sell T-shirts at the end of the day” and then couldn’t remember the tagline for his team, the Range Goats.
Way to sell us on the concept, Bubba.
It’s true that golf on television could use some sprucing up and new ideas, but there’s a certain rhythm and cadence to a Sunday when players are making moves and the leaders are trying to hold on. The tension of trying to win a golf tournament is what sells the sport, not the bells and whistles that LIV has reduced to pure kitsch.
Put the Saudi sportswashing connection to the side. Even with some big names in the field like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, LIV as a golf product just doesn’t really measure up. Even watching these guys play in shorts as opposed to the PGA Tour’s sartorial requirements gives off a vibe of unseriousness.
If this is just a weekend hit-and-giggle, why are we watching?
The ultimate legacy of LIV, beyond the mind-blowing amounts of money the Saudis are going to light on fire, is that it absolutely pushed the PGA Tour into action. The initial wave of players who took the LIV payday was concerning enough for the PGA Tour to make some dramatic changes to its schedule, amp up the purses for its biggest events and ensure more money landed in the pockets of top players.
And now that everyone has seen what LIV is — and what it isn’t — the danger of significant defections seems to have passed. If Mito Pereira and Thomas Pieters are the best LIV can do now, there is simply no way it can be called a rival. At best, it’s a well-paid halfway house between the PGA Tour and senior events.
A year ago, LIV grabbed plenty of headlines because of how it shook things up, how it strained relationships between players and how it tried (and failed) to brush aside the connection to Saudi Arabia’s horrible record on human rights.
But after all that, now that it’s time to sink or swim on the golf course, what is LIV really offering besides a gimmicky, hard-to-follow broadcast and a bunch of past-their-prime pros?
It turns out, not a whole lot. LIV is less than a year old, but just like most of its players, its best days may already be in the rearview mirror.