Column: LIV gets through inaugural season with hurdles ahead

Dustin Johnson says his hands “were not real steady” over a 3-foot par putt at Doral for the final meaningful stroke of a LIV Golf season in constant search of meaning.

The putt meant more to his team than to someone who had made more than $100 million in 15 years on the PGA Tour, and who was about to make $35 million more in five months.

“That was a little more stress than I was looking for,” Johnson said.

How steady were those hands on that 3-foot putt on the bumpy 18th green at Chambers Bay that cost him the 2015 U.S. Open?

That’s a question for cynics of Saudi-funded LIV Golf who aren’t sure what to make of the new league. That’s because golf has never seen a model such as this with team scores and 48-man fields and shotgun starts.

It certainly hasn’t seen this amount of guaranteed money.

LIV Golf went from “dead in the water” in February to launching its 54-hole product with a shotgun start in June to joining the antitrust lawsuit against the PGA Tour in August to a final event Sunday decided by Johnson and Cameron Smith, its best two players.

And now it goes away for three months — gone, but not silent.

Still to come is the 2023 schedule expected by the end of the month, and more Saudi cash thrown at PGA Tour players to try to lure them away to a league where the money is real and the relevance is to be determined.

It has time on its side. “We’re not going anywhere” has become the latest mantra for LIV Golf, and it’s far more legitimate than “golf is a force for good.”

LIV Golf has unlimited money that has bought everything but credibility. One measure of success will be how badly it is missed when it starts up again, and even that will be hard to appraise because so few people were watching in the first place.

Finding a broadcast partner, even if LIV Golf has to buy time, will be more valuable than any other player it can sign.

“We have to start commercializing the product,” Atul Khosla, the president and COO of LIV Golf, told reporters at Doral. “Got to get on TV. Need to get corporate partners. These are milestones that we need to hit.”

The plan is for 12 teams, four players and one reserve. The league will be based on a franchise model, with the captain getting a 25% stake and taking part ownership in building the team brand.

As critical as it is to get a television deal, equally important is corporate sponsorship, and that will take companies willing to accept being linked to the league’s source of funding from the Saudi Arabia sovereign wealth fund.

Another hurdle is the Official World Golf Ranking, which might only be relevant depending on how the major championships determine their criteria.

If nothing changes, as many as 12 players from LIV Golf would be eligible for the Masters. At least four others are likely to fall out of the top 50 in the world by the end of the year, a key category for Augusta National.

The USGA (U.S. Open) and Royal & Ancient Golf Club (British Open) are not expected to announce qualifying criteria until sometime early next year.

R&A chief Martin Slumbers tipped his hand in an interview with Golf Digest.

“We’re not banning anyone,” Slumbers said. “We are not going to betray 150 years of history and have the Open not be open. The name says it all. And that’s important.”

The majors suddenly have more power than ever in golf. The PGA Tour has suspended players who join LIV Golf, while the European tour is waiting on the courts early next year to decide whether it can similarly punish such players.

If that’s the case, the majors might be the only golf tournaments all year that bring together the best from every tour.

“Maybe the consequence of where we are is that we only get to see all of the very best players together four times a year,” Slumbers said. “So we’ll enjoy it four times a year.”

LIV Golf signed up 26 players who were among the top 100 at the end of last year. Without access to ranking points, seven players (including Bryson DeChambeau) have dropped out of the top 50 and nine (including Phil Mickelson) are now out of the top 100.

If LIV Golf marches on in a team concept, should the world ranking even matter to them? At that point, it’s only about access to the majors.

The biggest hurdle of all might be the stigma that this is more about entertainment than sport. Players are happier, and there are plenty of reasons for that. They’re getting more money than ever. They only play 54 holes without a cut. Gone is the cut-throat competition so many faced on established tours. That’s what golf was.

For the majority of fans, that’s what golf still is.

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