BEDMINSTER, NJ – Standing by his ball on Friday, Phil Mickelson, the prized acquisition of the new, Saudi-backed LIV Golf Series, was setting up his opening shot at the Breakaway Circles event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster.
Just as Mickelson, who reportedly received a $200 million advance prize money to enter the Rebel Tour, was about to start his swing, a fan 15 yards to the right shouted, “Do it for the Saudi royal family!”
Mickelson pulled back a shot when a security official approached the crowd and told him he would be removed from the course if there was another blowout.
Seemingly flustered, Mickelson returned to his stance and eventually hit a putt that sailed 60 feet and landed in a cavernous bunker. Mickelson would begin his day with a bogey by snapping his finger and muttering to his cadet.
The dominant LIV Golf tagline, blared in radio ads and displayed in neon letters on mammoth billboards around Trump Square, is “Golf, but louder.”
It’s unlikely that Mickelson’s episode, which occurred seconds after the first LIV Golf event in the Northeast, was what organizers had in mind.
It was loud for most of Friday’s first round. Yes, there was plenty of music playing on the course as powerful speakers were positioned near the greens and tee boxes. But the thunder, the typical soundtrack of professional golf tournaments, was absent.
The crowd at the event, LIV Golf’s third tournament, was too thin to hear any cheers on the course. It may have been because it was Friday and not the weekend, but for example, the biggest crowd of the day was undoubtedly for Mickelson, and it was about 350 people.
And Mickelson was hitting next to the club’s large balcony and patio. When he reached the first green, there were exactly 43 people waiting. While he played the 18th hole, the large luxury box overlooking the green was empty. The course accommodated a few thousand spectators, but about the 20,000 that might attend an average PGA Tour event. LIV Golf officials did not release an attendance figure.
As the day wore on, some greens were partially covered by fans standing two deep, but that was a rarity. However, for many attendees, this was not a bad thing at all.
Danny McCarthy, 29, of Kearns, N.J., admired his unobstructed view of the 18th green. He planned to stay in the same spot all day and watch 18 groups of three players each as they played the hole.
“There’s a beer stand behind me and the line isn’t that long,” McCarthy said.
There were other notable ways in which the atmosphere was different than at a PGA Tour event. For one, the players seemed much more relaxed. In interviews, LIV Golf players talked about how the new circuit worked to boost collective spirit with extravagant pre-tournament parties at nightclubs and generous travel reimbursements for players’ families and staff.
Moreover, with the controversy swirling around the scheme – including its funding by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund and fears that it would destroy the venerable golf ecosystem forever – LIV golfers felt left out. That fostered an us-versus-them mentality that was evident on Friday. As the players walked the fairway, there was much more casual conversation among their groups than is typical at a PGA Tour event.
The element of team competition may be a factor. At each LIV event, 12 four-man teams play for a prize of $3 million, which is shared equally by the winner and supplemented by individual golf earnings.
“It’s a lot like playing college golf,” said Sam Horsfield, who at 25 is one of the youngest players in the field. “You try to make guys good on every shot.”
But at the end of the day, there’s a big reason why LIV golfers feel calmer and more cooperative: Every player is, in a sense, guaranteed to be a winner. Unlike PGA Tour events that send home half without a dollar, LIV Golf events have guaranteed payouts. Even the last place finisher will receive $120,000 for the three-day competition.
The payout was made possible by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, leading critics to blame the players for the country’s poor human rights record. On Friday, a group of family members of 9/11 victims staged a protest near the course, alleging that Saudi officials were supporting terrorists.
But on the course, some fans, especially the younger ones, fed up with the camaraderie they observed between the players.
“I like what they’re doing on social media, even seeing how they’re enjoying the social events leading up to the events,” said John Monteiro, 30, who traveled to the tournament Friday from his home in Reading. “The players are having more fun and if they’re having fun, I want to go and share that atmosphere.”
Monteiro was flanked by his friend Alex Kelney, 30, who lives in Rumson, NJ. calm signs. “
Monteiro interjected, “When we play golf, there’s a speaker that plays music, and I feel like that’s how we grew up playing golf.”
Neither Monteiro nor Köln is worried about cracking men’s professional golf due to controversy between tours.
“It’s a healthy competition that ultimately makes both of us better,” Köln said.
It was 90 minutes before the first shots of the day, Mickelson’s collision, as Monteiro and Colney spoke. Before that, the crowd was thin and sparse at many of the holes.
Monteiro admitted it was early in the LIV Golf experiment. He smiled and said, “Let’s see.”