Tuesday, July 16, 2024

DORAL, Fla. — After the paragliders landed, unfurling flags for Aces GC and Crushers GC, the first-tee emcee set the stage. LIV Golf’s team championship was upon us. The entire season had come down to this, he said. Time to get hyped. Three women ran along the rope line, waving T-shirts in the air, the universal sign to make noise. In unison, amid the thumping beat of Khwezi’s “Cyberpunk 2020,” the emcee got things started.

“Miami, get ready to party,” he said. “This is golf, but louder.”

Then, Talor Gooch, Charles Howell III, Mito Pereira and Patrick Reed teed off one by one to some clapping, some whooping. LIV’s finale — 12 teams playing for a $50 million season-ending purse — was underway, with a cool $14 million to the four-man winning team.

Not long ago, it was thought that this — the 2023 team championship at Trump Doral outside Miami — might serve as LIV’s final resting place. In early June, following the PGA Tour’s formal agreement to partner with the near-$700 billion Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, voices were quick to promote the presumptive demise of the tour’s chief rival.

The deal created a for-profit company combining the commercial interests of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour behind a large cash investment from the PIF. Just as importantly, it forged a ceasefire ending the expensive, prying litigation that neither side wanted. LIV, it seemed, was expendable in the deal. A person involved with the negotiation told The Athletic in June: “I don’t know that it’s going to exist. Because the PIF is not running it. Greg Norman certainly isn’t running it. He’s out of a job. Performance 54 isn’t running it. It’s Jay (Monahan). Like, that’s the deal.”

It was, until it wasn’t.

Four and a half months later, it appears the framework agreement between the tour and the PIF is dead, dying, or, at best, will need to be extended past a Dec. 31 deadline for completion. The PGA Tour is in talks with outside investors, including Endeavor, the entertainment and media agency that owns the UFC and WWE, and other private entities. Publicly, officials from both the tour and the PIF will only say they’re still operating in good faith and remain committed to the framework agreement. Privately, voices on both sides cite heavy doubts building by the day. All indications say the seismic shifts in the future of professional golf are far from settled.

Where does that leave LIV? Golf’s great disruptor is now 22 events into its existence. Staff and executives like to say this year’s 14-event slate was Season 1, while 2022’s eight tournaments should be considered Season 0. That means 2024 will be Year 3, and Season 2, if you follow.

With LIV, things are never exactly as they seem.

Which is why, over the weekend, only four and a half months after a supposed death notice was in the mail, a LIV source, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly, looked out over the scene at Trump Doral and told me that what was thought to be the end might’ve actually been the beginning. Think about it, he asked me, would the PIF really pour somewhere around a billion dollars into LIV and not keep going?

Suppose not.

So, if the framework falls apart, where does LIV go from here, I asked.

“I think we double down.”

As it often goes, Norman, LIV’s polarizing CEO, was front and center over the weekend at Trump Doral. The 68-year-old walked the grounds with Apollo, an English lab with an endearing disposition. Norman shook hands. He flipped hats into the crowd. He puffed his chest in a form-fitting polo. He also, more notably, made his first public comments since both June’s framework agreement, and since PGA Tour officials testified in front of the Senate that he’s disposable. In a brief session with a few reporters on Thursday, Norman said neither he nor LIV are going anywhere.

“As we go into 2024, we’ve got corporations coming in,” he said. “We’ll have them signing up before the end of the year, and we’ll have new players as well.”

So often, the perceptions of LIV’s future are tied directly to its ability to add talented players. At Doral, Phil Mickelson said another “wave” is coming this offseason. Bubba Watson backed him up. “There’s interest,” he said. “People are calling, texting. They are asking for help to try to get in the league. Phil knows it. We all know it. The higher-ups know it, and we are just working through the details.”

Simply more bluster from an operation styled by bluster? Perhaps.

Similar claims were heard around this time last year. At the time, the PGA Tour believed it held the high ground. Legacy matters in golf and it thought it had history, loyalty and morality on its side. Monahan, the tour’s commissioner, continued to call LIV an “irrational threat” from a foreign government marred by human rights violations and ties to 9/11 attackers. Things were trending the tour’s way, including a unifying meeting in Delaware getting key players on the same page.

That 2022-23 offseason, LIV didn’t raise the ante with the kind of mega-upfront-payouts it used to recruit its original 48-man roster. The result was only a trickle of middling additions, no disrespect to Sebastian Munoz or Pereira.

But dynamics are different heading into the 2023-24 offseason. The tour punted the morality card by entering into its framework agreement with PIF and infuriated its membership by making a deal without its approval, resulting in a reshaping of the policy board and addition of Tiger Woods, providing the players with a shift in power. Now, to maintain its talent, the tour is reliant on legacy allegiances, restructured elevated (some of them no-cut) events aimed to funnel money to top players and a newfound partnership with TGL, a venture headed by Woods and Rory McIlroy.

The sums needed to pare away more talent from the PGA Tour today are believed to be massive figures. Two tour agents contacted for this story both said any current high-profile tour player would demand similar sums (or more) to those early LIV enlistees received. While never officially announced, it has been reported that Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Mickelson and perhaps others received payments of more than $100 million each.

But that could be exactly what LIV is prepared to offer.

Last week marked Gary Davidson’s final event as acting COO of LIV. The co-founder of Performance 54, a sports advisory and strategy firm, Davidson came into the post in December 2022, following the departure of Atul Khosla, a longtime sports executive who left amid a wave of senior officials departing the fledgling golf league. At the time, documents obtained by the New York Times suggested LIV faced steep challenges in gaining sustained traction.

Ten months later, the framework agreement has now changed that view. As Davidson puts it, “In terms of long-term planning, it’s opened up a couple of doors and taken away some of the headwinds.” With less pushback, Davidson says, LIV is moving forward in adding new teams in 2023 (from 12 to 13, or 14, or maybe up to 15, the max LIV can field as long as it holds onto its shotgun start formula) and finalizing “long-term commitments” from venues that will host repeat events for the next two or three years. Additionally, changes are being considered in a variety of areas from branding to the broadcast product.

Davidson is stepping aside for Lawrence Burian, a former executive vice president with the Madison Square Garden family of companies who will now oversee LIV’s day-to-day business operations. Burian’s hiring (and his multi-year, multi-million-dollar contract) is the first of several C-suite appointments coming over the next few weeks, according to LIV sources. Having spent much of its existence heavily reliant on outside consultants and contracted firms, LIV should soon have a more formal executive leadership team, including a new chief marketing officer.

Challenges remain steep. LIV’s application to earn world ranking points was recently unanimously rejected by the Official World Golf Ranking. It’s unclear if or when it will reapply. As a result, pathways for LIV players into the majors will continue to dwindle. Davidson said discussions are ongoing for LIV players to receive exemptions into some majors, but such a scenario seems doubtful — the same group that denied the OWGR claim runs the major championships.

So. New executives. New teams. And, potentially, new players.

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