BOLTON, Mass. — Roughly 11 weeks ago in the Boston suburbs, men’s professional golf welcomed the game’s best players to the 122nd U.S. Open. Five days before that event began, the inaugural LIV Golf tournament in England was ending; it was largely treated as an anomalous curiosity.
When Phil Mickelson, the well-compensated headliner of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour, played his first holes at the U.S. Open, he was greeted politely, but the gallery also loudly snickered when one fan yelled: “Sellout!” At the conclusion of the championship, many in the tradition-bound golf community found amusement in noting the dreadful play of the small gaggle of LIV-aligned golfers, most especially Mickelson, who missed the cut with a score of 11 over par.
On Friday, another Boston suburb will host the fourth LIV Golf tournament. But no one is laughing at the upstart circuit anymore.
Since the June midpoint of this year’s golf season, the breakaway circuit, financed by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, has lured away a deep collection of top golfers from the PGA Tour and coerced the rattled Tour into hurriedly adopting fundamental systemic changes to remain competitive.
Even after the more-established PGA Tour ended its 2021-22 season on Sunday, LIV Golf continued to seize the spotlight by announcing its biggest talent acquisition, the signing of Cameron Smith, the world’s second-ranked male golfer and the reigning British Open champion. Smith, 29, was joined by five other PGA Tour veterans, including Joaquin Niemann of Chile, who is 23 years old and ranked 19th, and Harold Varner III, a 32-year-old American who is ranked 46th.
Unlike nearly every one of his predecessors who have abandoned the PGA Tour for the rival series, Smith, who was reportedly paid $100 million to join LIV Golf, did not try to shamelessly deny that money played a factor in his decision. But he spent considerable time describing how the shorter LIV Golf schedule would allow him to spend more time in his native Australia, adding that he had not been home in three years. And he harped on a familiar theme — a feeling that LIV Golf offered a refreshing, youthful vibe — that has been preached by other defectors, each of whom did so fully aware that they would be suspended from participating on the PGA Tour.
“I think this is the future of golf — I think it’s been the same for a very, very long time, and it needs to be stirred up a little bit,” Smith said. “I think it needs to change. I kind of see this as a new chapter in my life.”
On Friday, Smith, Niemann and Varner will play in the first of three rounds of the 54-hole LIV Golf event at the International Golf Club in Bolton, Mass., a small town about 40 miles west of Boston.
Protests and controversy about LIV Golf’s financial backing have dogged each of the series’ three previous events, which were held outside London, near Portland, Ore., and at the Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, N.J. A similar reaction may occur in Bolton, a town of about 5,600, which has made a designated area near a golf spectators’ parking lot available to protesters.
Varner conceded that when his decision to commit to LIV Golf was announced on Tuesday, he was stunned by the negative comments on social media it engendered. Varner, a popular PGA Tour player and one of the few Black golfers in tour or major championship fields, said he took the time to read each of the derogatory remarks, even though he was cautioned not to.
“I’m not ashamed of being Harold,” Varner said, then added: “But it was terrible. Who likes to be hated? I hate being hated. I’d rather not even be known than be hated.”
But Varner, who earned $10.4 million in prize money on the PGA Tour, said he took LIV Golf’s upfront signing bonus — his payment has not been disclosed — to protect his family financially. Noting his modest upbringing in Gastonia, N.C., Varner said: “For a kid that grew up where I grew up, it was an opportunity for me to just make sure my kid never would be in that situation — ever — and that means the world to me.”
Amid all the buzz and tumult the LIV Golf venture has created, one unequivocal reality has emerged about this summer’s disruption to golf’s status quo: There will be a lot more prize money distributed to virtually every top professional player. Late last month, the PGA Tour suddenly revealed that beginning next season the average purse for 12 of its existing events, plus an additional four tournaments yet to be named, would be $20 million. That’s a sizable jump in player earnings, and, not coincidentally, closely mimics the prize money available at the eight LIV Golf events this year.
The PGA Tour also announced it was augmenting the Player Impact Program it began last year that paid 10 top players from a $40 million pool based on their popularity as measured by internet searches, general golf fan awareness, mentions in the media and broadcast exposure. The new program will now reward twice as many players from a bonus pool that has ballooned to $100 million.
And finally, the tour plans to guarantee lower-level players $500,000 in annual earnings and a travel stipend for missed cuts at tournaments.
It is entirely conceivable, even probable, that had the PGA Tour implemented these changes a month before this year’s U.S. Open, the LIV Golf series might have largely remained the afterthought that most in golf expected it to be three months ago. Although, upfront payouts of $100 million, or even $200 million, which Mickelson reportedly received, may have changed the golf landscape regardless.
As another LIV Golf event dawns, and the PGA Tour goes into what is typically its off-season, much is undecided, and there is intrigue about what will happen next. How could there not be? The sport is in the midst of an unprecedented showdown with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake.
But waiting on the sidelines are golf’s most influential power brokers, and they are the leaders of the four separate governing bodies overseeing the men’s major championships: the Masters Tournament, the P.G.A. Championship (which is not run by the PGA Tour), the U.S. Open and the British Open.
The leaders of each of these entities have conspicuously avoided praising LIV Golf this year. Some have been downright dismissive and contemptuous of golf’s new tour. These groups may hold golf’s future in their hands, with the reserved, assiduously circumspect officials of the Augusta National Golf Club getting the first opportunity to make a profound statement for 2023.
One thing is certain. The severe splintering of men’s golf may have been unforeseen back at the U.S. Open in June, but the brightly colored LIV Golf banners sprouting in another Boston suburb this week — they read, “Golf, but louder” — prove how much has changed in such a short time.