LIV Golf’s $50-million team championship got under way at a sun-drenched Trump National on Friday but, while there was some top-quality golf, it was clear the organisers’ hope of partisan support from fans has yet to materialise.
The biggest crowds on the Blue Monster course were drawn to Open champion Cameron Smith of Australia as he defeated six-time Major winner Phil Mickelson by a single stroke in their matchplay battle.
The atmosphere at the course, owned by former US president Donald Trump, was lively although the numbers appeared well below the levels for past PGA Tour-sanctioned events at Doral.
Enough fans turned out, though, and appeared to enjoy the ‘party vibe’ created at the course, with the Beastie Boy’s ‘Fight for Your Right to Party’ blasting through speakers shortly before the players teed off in shotgun style.
It was much less clear, however, how many really cared that Smith’s win was crucial to Punch GC beating Hy Flyers.
The team element has been a major part of LIV’s attempt to provide a different product to the PGA Tour as they look to capture some of the passion generated by the Ryder Cup.
But while the clash between the United States and Europe is able to tap into patriotism and identity, it is a tougher sell to get fans to commit to teams with names like Firesticks and Cleeks.
A volunteer offered up free team badges to fans but few took up the offer and fewer still had bought the caps emblazoned with team logos.
Indeed, there were significantly more fans at the South Florida course wearing Trump hats than anything associated with the new LIV teams.
“Listen, we don’t have the crowds we need yet but it is a start-up company and momentum will continue to grow, there is something special about this format, hopefully people enjoyed it because the players certainly enjoyed it,” Graeme McDowell, the Northern Irishman told AFP.
After the day’s play was over, the captains of the four top-ranked teams from the regular season, who had received a bye into the semi-finals, chose their opponents for Saturday’s semi-finals and engaged in the kind of gentle banter that is becoming the hallmark of LIV’s approach.
The players talked of their teams’ result and their hopes for their teams and McDowell said there was nothing fake about that enthusiasm.
“I think the people at home or on social media, they think it is all bulls**t, that we are so into the team side of it, but legitimately in the locker room, guys really are coming together and they really care a lot about the team stuff,” he said.
Part of the problem might be the rather odd names chosen for some of the teams, monickers that have no link to any geographical entity, but McDowell believes that fans will gradually catch on.
“The names were a little funky in the beginning, but four months later they feel normal to me. But the fan, it is going to take some time for them to get engaged and for them to really believe,” he said.
“But once they believe, this product is very cool. The individual thing is one side of it but this team championship, it really felt like a lot of fun out there.”
Fun is a word that several players have used, but not all are keen to contrast that feeling with life on the more traditional PGA Tour.
“I had fun on the Tour,” said American Harold Varner. “I don’t struggle with it whatsoever. The situation isn’t what everyone else makes it out to be.
“My job is to enjoy what I do. I know I couldn’t work a nine-to-five job and make the same amount of money and I love competition, so yeah, it’s the same thing, just more money,” he said.
Varner captained the Niblicks team which lost 2-1 to Brooks Koepka’s Smash GC but still left with $1m in prize money split between the four team members.
The winning team after Sunday’s final round will earn $16m.
© Agence France-Presse