Greg Norman and Saudi tour year in review

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thesociala
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Doused in champagne, arms aloft, and suddenly $8 million (A$12.5m) richer, Pat Perez couldn’t hide his smugness if he tried on Sunday.

The perennial odd-man-out didn’t do much in the most lucrative year of his long professional career.

With his career cooling down after years of irrelevance on the PGA Tour, the 46-year-old joined a rebel circuit, played 21 rounds of golf — poorly for the most part — and still earnt the biggest payday of his life.

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Vindication oozed out of every pore in his body as he provided arguably the single-most fitting quote for LIV Golf in 2022.

“All the push-back, all the negative comments, everything we’ve gotten, at this point I really don’t care,” Perez said.

“I mean, I don’t care. I’m paid. I don’t give a damn.”

Pat Perez couldn’t hide his smugness if he tried on Sunday.Source: AFP

Perez being one of golf’s biggest earners this year might seem like a giant middle-finger to more than a century’s worth of players who had to learn the value of hard graft.

That includes Perez himself, who turned pro in 1997 and took 20 years to earn just three wins on the PGA Tour, and nearly $30 million (A$46.9m) in career earnings.

In the space of less than five months, he earnt nearly a third of that, while $4 million (A$6.25m) alone was won playing just one round in Florida on Sunday.

Perez’s LIV Golf team, 4Aces featuring Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed and Talor Gooch, did most of the heavy lifting all year.

4Aces won four events during the regular season — Perez finished outside of the top 30 in five of seven tournaments, and didn’t finish higher than 16th — and then the $16 million top prize at the Team Championship.

All of this is to say that a tour that so heavily rewards one of its worst players might come across as some sort of joke.

However, while golf purists will be filthy at Perez’s rise, it should be acknowledged as part of a LIV strategy that’s going exactly to plan.

LIV Golf chief Greg Norman won’t be in a hurry to admit this publicly, but he doesn’t want a stocky 46-year-old from Arizona to be among his biggest stars either.

But for the first year of the Saudi-backed breakaway, Norman didn’t care who won big money, as long as someone was doing it.

“Quite honestly, it doesn’t matter who plays, we’re going to put the event on,” Norman told the UK Telegraph in April.

“A few of our events will go by and the top players will see someone winning $6 million, $8 million, and say ‘enough is enough, I know I can beat these guys week in week out with my hands tied behind my back’.”

How many players will be thinking that now?

The American golf establishment treated Norman with disrespect and didn’t take his model seriously despite his insistence that it would work.

But few understand the power of the dollar like Norman, who will need to start putting toes into pies because all his fingers are already occupied.

Who will have the last laugh remains to be seen as it remains early days — but one season in, and Norman’s LIV model is working so far.

Greg Norman has been underestimated in America.Source: Getty Images

LIV Golf might not be the sport’s premiere tour, but within the space of a few months, it already boasts a field stronger than anywhere outside of the United States.

Crazy to think now that in February the controversial breakaway, accused of being a sportswashing tool for Saudi Arabia, looked dead on arrival following a PR nightmare brought on by star recruit Phil Mickelson.

The six-time major winner was exposed by author Alan Shipnuck for acknowledging Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record, but saying he wants to join LIV Golf anyway for “leverage” against the PGA Tour.

The backlash was immense; Mickelson retreated to the shadows and didn’t play competitive golf for months, while Norman claims many of his would-be recruits got the jitters and backed out.

Asked about LIV Golf poaching players in February, Rory McIlroy boastfully said: “Who’s left? Who’s left to go? I mean, there’s no one.

“It’s dead in the water in my opinion. I just can’t any reason why anyone would go.”

EXCEEDING EXPECTATIONS

Remarkably, LIV Golf has just wrapped up an eight-event season and plans to almost double in size to 14 next year.

The inaugural season started in London with Johnson and Mickelson being the biggest recruits.

It ended in Miami with one of the top three golfers of 2022, Cameron Smith, joining along with fellow major-winners Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed, and rising stars Joaquin Niemann, Abraham Ancer and Eugenio Chacarra.

The field’s quality vastly exceeds what many expected Norman could assemble in year one, even with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund footing the bill.

As for the golf itself, there has been some genuinely thrilling encounters that showed why this can be more than just a cash-grab for players.

September’s event in Boston ended with an exciting three-way playoff between Johnson, Niemann and Anirban Lahiri. The chaotic ending, which also saw Smith and Lee Westwood go close to reaching the playoff, felt like a PGA Tour event insofar as genuine stars were competing for a massive payday late on a Sunday.

The Team Championship was also absorbing in the way it combined match play, stroke play, singles and pairs in an exciting format.

Among the highlights was Smith draining a clutch putt on the 18th hole to down Phil Mickelson and his Hyflyers GC to stay alive in the championship. Smith and Punch GC went on to finish second and collect $12 million despite being seeded 11th out of 12 teams.

The final came down to the wire with 4Aces narrowly holding off Punch GC by one shot for the $16 million top prize.

Every stroke from each team’s four players counted towards the final tally, adding importance to every single shot regardless of how the golfer’s round was going.

Those events were big wins for LIV, especially given they didn’t clash with any major PGA Tour tournaments, giving the organisation its moment in the sun.

Dustin Johnson winning a thriller in Boston was the season highlight.Source: AFP

STILL A WORK IN PROGRESS

Nonetheless, the jury is still out on whether LIV Golf will offer fans a viable alternative to the PGA Tour moving forward.

LIV Golf certainly had its moments in 2022, but there were many lacklustre ones too, while there are problems that need to be urgently solved.

The motivation behind shotgun starts is admirable. Norman is right that fans don’t want to watch an eight-hour broadcast with the best players spread out during the first two rounds.

But on the occasions a tournament was decided at the death, having the contenders on opposite sides of the property made the context of each shot harder to decipher. It also opened up the possibility of having a player win a tournament in front of virtually no gallery, with most fans sticking to holes down the stretch.

Meanwhile, the Team Championship was a winner, but the team component at regular events fell flat.

The fact 4Aces dominated most of the time didn’t help, but it still felt like an afterthought to the individual competition.

Furthermore, you have to wonder if golf fans can ever genuinely care about the Majesticks, or the Ironheads. Team fandom is built on emotional investment that often spans generations.

It’s hard to see how this can be achieved any time soon — although LIV Golf deserves credit for one smart move on this front.

Norman has begun dividing teams up along international lines, thus trying to accelerate buy-in across the globe. For example, Punch GC is all-Australian, Stinger GC all-South African, while the Fireballs feature four players from Spanish-speaking countries.

But it will be hard to find an identity for all teams — how do you sell Shergo Al Kurdi, Graeme McDowell, Laurie Canter and Richard Bland to the world?

Arguably the biggest bugbear, however, is just how many people are tuning in, either in-person or online.

Champions… but how many people care?Source: AFP

There’s no doubt that people have been interested in LIV Golf and the drama it has created, but less have been captivated by the golf itself.

Crowds were merely a fraction of those seen on the PGA Tour while the amount of people streaming online was underwhelming for what is a free-to-watch product.

Numbers reached their peak during the Boston thriller which reportedly averaged about 117,000 streamers on YouTube, but there was a sharp drop-off after that to 61,000 in Chicago and 40,000 in Miami.

International events in Bangkok and Jeddah were the most-poorly viewed, reportedly averaging 21,000 and 27,000 viewers on YouTube respectively.

The fact that it’s broadcast via an online stream in many nations, and not a TV network, is a big reason for the low numbers.

Generation Z might’ve mastered streaming, but many older golf fans haven’t, and consider watching YouTube on their televisions as a major barrier to viewership.

WHAT’S NEXT?

A television deal in the US now feels essential for the sustained growth of LIV Golf.

President Atul Khosla said in Miami that LIV Golf is going “back and forth with a few different networks” in the United States, while any deals outside of America are being negotiated separately.

“I feel good about where we are but we have work to do over the next couple of months,” Khosla said.

“We have got to start commercialising the product. We have got to get on TV, we have to get corporate partners. These are milestones that we need to hit.”

With season one in the books, the attention now turns to finalising plans for an expanded 14-event core schedule in 2023, when the competition will be rebranded as the LIV Golf League.

Destinations are yet to be finalised, but Australia and Spain are set to gain events, while LIV Golf says it will also expand “across North and Latin Americas, Asia, and the Middle East.”

A $300 million ($A435m) partnership with the Asian Tour means more tournaments involving LIV players will also be established outside of the main schedule.

‘Perfect’ Cam Smith putt sinks Mickleson | 00:41

In total, the LIV Golf League will see an eye-watering $405 million (A$630m) handed out to 48 players (and 12 substitutes) competing within 12 established team franchises.

Captains will own a 25 per cent stake in their franchise, thus incentivising them to grow the stature of their team.

LIV also aims to establish a transfer window, similar to that in football, and relegation to the Asian Tour’s International Series for the bottom four players in the season standings.

Acquiring more big-name players is also a priority for LIV Golf, which has been heavily linked with American stars Patrick Cantlay and Xander Schauffele, Mito Pereira and Thomas Pieters.

THE MAJORS

Crucial to golf’s landscape in 2023 is that, despite the expanded schedule, LIV Golf will still schedule around the four majors.

Whether LIV Golf members will be eligible to play is up to the four organisations that run them, but PGA Tour defectors will be buoyed by last week’s comments from R&A chief Martin Slumbers.

Slumbers told Golf Digest that the R&A doesn’t want to “betray 150 years of history” by “not being open”, and will therefore not ban anyone from competing at next year’s Open Championship.

That stance is expected to be made official in early 2023.

Cameron Smith will be clear to defend his Claret Jug next year.Source: AFP

Not only does that allow Smith to defend his title, but it drives home the fact that golf can no longer exist under the PGA Tour’s ‘our-way-or-the-highway’ approach.

If LIV Golf players can have their cake and eat it too, the PGA Tour simply won’t be able to crush the rival tour and must find a way for the two to coexist.

With the R&A set to crumble, it seems likely that the USGA, which runs the US Open, will follow suit, opening up at least two majors to LIV Golf members.

Where Augusta National and the PGA of America will stand is less certain, although a number of LIV Golf players are former Masters winners and therefore have lifetime exemptions. Any decision to ban LIV Golf members would therefore surely end up in the courtrooms.

Ultimately, it might simply be easier to allow LIV Golf players to still feature at the majors while keeping them out of the PGA Tour’s marquee tournaments, as well as the prestigious Ryder and Presidents Cups.

With a few concessions on both sides, this world might be big enough for the two tours after all.

If the US majors opt to align with the PGA Tour and ban LIV Golf members instead, Saudi Golf Federation chief Majed Al Sorour has warned that it could old trigger another round of warfare.

“If the majors decide not to have our players play? I will celebrate. I will create my own majors for my players,” he told the New Yorker.

“Honestly, I think all the tours are being run by guys who don’t understand business.”

FEUD TO RUMBLE ON

While there is hope for a greater level of harmony in 2023, it’s unlikely to materialise with many flashpoints between LIV Golf and the establishment ongoing.

Among them is Ryder Cup selection and the banning of LIV Golf members, which is set to heavily undermine the competition with Europe gutted of several stars.

LIV closing in on World Ranking Points | 00:44

Players, such as Garcia, are starting to make peace with missing out. But the PGA Tour will be uneasy with seeing one of its biggest events downgraded, given it can no longer claim to be the very best of Europe against the very best of the US.

LIV Golf’s ongoing quest for Official World Golf Ranking points is the other battle with no end in sight.

The OWGR has refused to acknowledge LIV Golf events, although their rankings have inevitably become inaccurate as a result.

For example, the rankings have Johnson at No.31, but it’s hard to imagine that LIV Golf’s top earner is not inside the best 10 players in the world.

LIV Golf looks determined to keep seeking ways to earn OWGR points, such as forming a strategic alliance with the developmental MENA Tour last month.

“I think from our end, we believe we deserve the points. Clearly with our strategic alliance with the MENA Tour, we absolutely deserve those points,” Khosla said.

“Can’t control who’s on the board and who’s conflicted, who votes on the board, I don’t know if there’s a mislead there, but that’s pretty clearly obvious at this point that there are divisions on the board that are conflicted in voting for us to get points.”

Needless to say that this war seems to have only just begun.

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