NORTH PLAINS, Ore. – As I roamed the driving range before Thursday’s shotgun kickoff, a particularly red 3-wood stopped me in my tracks.
“Yeah, that’ll work out,” I mumbled to one of the 48 LIVers at Pumpkin Ridge this week.
“Yes, it will,” he replied. He then pushed another ball from the stack into striking position and turned around again. “But, who cares if it’s not?”
He scores a point. LIV Golf covers travel and accommodation costs for the 48 players, their caddies, agents and coaches. Without a cut, you could shoot eight over par each round and still win $120,000 for the week. Andy Ogletree literally did that. Winning the tournament does no more for your world ranking than finishing in the middle of the pack. (No points, and no points.) There is, of course, more money to be earned for high finishes. But the “worst possible scenario” is not bad. There is only the good side.
It should be noted that not all pros feel so willy-nilly. Abraham Ancer says, “I’m way too competitive to indulge in golf. I feel like I will do everything I can to stay competitive and improve at what I do. And Bryson DeChambeau’s unwavering perfectionism caused him to shut down the practice Thursday night. New tour, even Bryson.
There was, however, a remarkably stress-free atmosphere all week. In golf, the stakes are simply not high and players feel free to do almost anything they want. DeChambeau’s full content creation team, Regecy, has been on the ropes all week, walking down the fairway behind him to film content for his YouTube channel. It would never fly on the PGA Tour. “It’s literally the opposite of the PGA Tour,” says one of its cameramen. “You can’t do bullshit there. Here they are encouraging it’s up to us to do things. LIV has previously aired a promo piece produced by DeChambeau’s team, and there have been talks of further collaborations. The players’ families navigated inside the ropes throughout the practice rounds. Almost everything is allowed.
“It’s as if the answer to every question is yes“explains an agent. “A total and complete five star experience.”
It’s a limited field, but the staff LIV has hired could easily service a 156-man event. There seems to be someone wearing a LIVGOLF jersey ready to act as a personal concierge at every turn. Black SUVs wait at four depths near the clubhouse to take golfers and anyone associated with them wherever they please. Caddies too. LIV went out of her way to roll out the red carpet for the loopers, give them freebies when they arrive, set them up in a five-star hotel for free, spruce up the caddies’ lounge and dining room.
“It’s been phenomenal with the caddies,” says Ancer, who makes his LIV debut this week. “It’s pretty amazing how happy they are. Accommodation, travel, is a big part of that. They are enthusiastic about having everything taken care of.
The fan experience has also been great. There are not many spectators on site – LIV has not confirmed the number but they have limited attendance largely for safety reasons given the radioactivity following this tour – there is so never a problem to get on the rope. There are way more concession stands and food trucks than you need.
“It’s such a big event,” says Jennifer Martin, born and raised in Portland. “We can walk anywhere. It’s not crowded. The food is good. It’s really nice here.
None of the 48 players will say a negative word about LIV – of course, that’s largely because they’re on the payroll of the Saudi-backed group. But it’s also because they were treated like royalty.
LIV can afford to treat players, agents, coaches, caddies and fans with white gloves because, well, they can afford it. Not forever, but for now. LIV is believed to be willing to spend $2 billion to launch this upstart tour – that’s a ton of money, and they have a very long lead before they should start making a profit. But officials argue that neither the lead nor the money is endless, and that LIV will only succeed if it becomes profitable.
LIV officials relish the opportunity to tell you that the Saudi Public Investment Fund is actively trying to grow and diversify its assets beyond just oil, which, although seemingly infinite, is indeed a finite resource. They think the Saudis see sport, this sport, as a way to achieve that goal. They dismiss the charges of sportswashing by insisting that it is about profiteering. But that’s not the concern at the moment.
LIV must grow. It just needs to be. He needs to recruit better players. He has to somehow build identities and fanbases for the 12 teams he has every intention of selling. It is a crucial part of the business model. LIV needs to sell corporate sponsorships. This is a long-term plan – one LIV official described the PIF vision as “several decades” – but it is not an endless spending spree.
It’s also far from a finished product. Any conversation with LIV employees inevitably results in “not yet” or “just wait”. There are a bunch of really good and really famous golfers here, but it’s not enough to make a profit. Not even close. LIV is, to put it bluntly, burning money. There is not a single company logo on the ground. The money for the concert stage, for the two “CLUB 54” hospitality tents, for all those hotel rooms, for the logo on Patrick Reed’s hat, for the guaranteed player offers and for the prize in money – it’s all from LIV Golf.
The number one objective at the moment is the recruitment of players, fans and sponsors. Greg Norman likes to call this quaint little Saudi-backed company a “start-up,” so we’ll play ball and dive into the language of business. All that money is, essentially, the cost of acquiring customers. (Golfers, fans, and sponsors are the customers in this scenario. Not a perfect analogy.) The way they plan to do this is to provide golfers, their caddies, their teams, their families, executives and fans a ball experience and I hope they will tell their friends. It’s a pretty simple word-of-mouth strategy, and it’s worked on some people.
Kenny Harms, Kevin Na’s caddy, has consistently posted flexible messages about all the perks of LIV: free rides on private jets, fancy parties, thoughtful gifts. Word of the first-class treatment — and, assuming the standard eight percent deal, a minimum check for $9,600 at the end of the week — is sure to spread through the notorious chatty caddie community. Coaches love it too. Someone there this week called one of his PGA Tour players with a clear message: if you don’t get out of here, you’re screwed! Brooks Koepka said hearing the first LIVers helped him turn around away from the PGA Tour.
“Talking to the guys – everyone who came back that I talked to, [Dustin Johnson]my brother Phil [Mickelson], everyone had only nice things to say. So I took him at his word,” Koepka said.
To continue our startup theme: LIV is in the pre-revenue, pre-profit and honeymoon phase. It won’t last forever. Startups have to spend a lot of money to get started. But eventually they have to start making money. The only way for LIV to do this is to convince people other than professional golfers and their entourages that LIV Golf is worthwhile.
The path to a TV deal for LIV, which is considered essential for long-term viability, is to become so popular that a network or streaming service is willing to bear the PR ramifications. And they’re starting from scratch – LIV’s tournaments have no history or identity to rely on. There is no precedent for this team concept in professional golf. It is not a small mountain to climb. LIV hopes to make her way to the top.