Golf’s civil war is coughing up casualties.
Like many wars, soldiers are sent to the frontline under false pretences, only to find the situation wasn’t what they signed up for. And, like any war, the only time there’s a winner is when peace breaks out.
Golf’s war has divided the sport, in an age when #GrowTheGame is supposed to trend. People who ordinarily have the clearest of minds in the most testing of circumstances, like a heart surgeon performing a triple bypass, have allowed themselves to get swayed by opinion.
LIV Golf was supposed to be #GolfButLouder. Greg Norman promised it was the future of the sport and that people – players, fans, sponsors, media – had grown tired of the ‘traditional’ major Tours. The PGA had bled the players dry over the years, he claimed, depriving them of the financial pie that they deserved to be eating. Come over to the new dawn of golf, or get lost in the past.
At first, only 15 of the top 100-ranked men’s golfers in the world cashed in their major Tour statuses in exchange for truckloads of dollars, the promise to play less, spend more time with their families and friends and have no-cut invitational 54-hole tournaments. In other words, play less, and earn a lot more. A bit like Cristiano Ronaldo joining Al Nassr in Saudi Arabia’s football league.
Then more crossed over #easymoney. Only eight events in 2022, shotgun starts and every player picks up a cheque. Dustin Johnson took home over $35-million from those eight events, apart from his enormous signing-on fee. From 2023 it would really kick on: 12 events, an accent on team competition and more high-ranked defectors coming from the PGA Tour.
There’s no doubt that LIV shook up the sport in 2022. And it attracted golfers of the stature of Johnson, Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed.
All Major champions and all capable of winning any Major on their day.
The thing is, you can fool some of the people some of the time, but not all of the people all of the time. Norman promised to secure even bigger names for 2023. ‘Major champions, current and future Hall of Famers and up-and-coming stars are all committed to creating this new platform for world-class competition as the sport evolves for the next generation,’ he said. And then he promptly announced that Thomas Pieters, Danny Lee, Brendan Steele, Dean Burmester, Mito Pereira and Sebastian Munoz had joined LIV Golf. Social media went into a frenzy, with Norman being the butt of the joke.
Ahead of the season-opener in Mayakoba in Mexico, Norman had announced a ‘momentous’ TV deal with The CW Network. ‘This partnership is about more than just media rights,’ he said ‘The CW will provide accessibility for our fans and maximum exposure for our athletes and partners. We’re very proud to note how consequential it is that a league that has only existed for one year has secured a full broadcast deal in its debut full league season.’
What happened next was surprising. John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal reported – and the figures were later verified – that the tournament drew a 0.2 TV rating for its CW Network debut across its 26 measured markets. The numbers mean that only 0.2% of households in the measured areas tuned into the invitational event. Even the World’s Funniest Animals, which also aired on CW later on in the day, attracted more viewers.
The PGA Tour’s Genesis Invitational played the week before drew a 1.8 rating for the third round. According to analysts, that difference in viewers is huge.
As in any war, the goalposts have shifted. The PGA Tour has made concessions and the good thing to have come from the spat with LIV is that players on the PGA Tour are now receiving more of that financial pie. It took a split in the sport to force them into that position, so they are not exactly an innocent party in all this.
But that’s the thing with wars. No side is completely innocent. Yet, we all take sides; it’s a human trait. Golf should bring out the best in people, it’s that kind of sport. But we’re still quite a way from getting back to the centre ground.
– This column first appeared in the April 2023 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine.