Takeaways from a “startup” tour that finally found what it was looking for: legitimacy 

[ getty images: Andy Lyons]

Greg Norman hailed it as a “mic-drop moment for the sport”. Joaquin Niemann said it was “the best experience I’ve had on a golf course by far”. And its newest recruit – world No.2 Cam Smith – admitted “it felt like the course had a heartbeat”.

This was no ordinary Boston ‘tee’ party – and certainly not what the critics had in mind. Though the initial LIV Golf events lacked a cutting edge – a starry-eyed Pat Perez wearing a money-print shirt and sipping red wine on the eve of play doesn’t exactly scream professionalism – what unfolded at The International in early September was every bit as compelling as it should have been alarming for those that strenuously opposed it.

The question coming into LIV’s fourth invitational event was the same one asked and unsatisfactorily answered in the nascent tour’s three previous starts: could a no-cut, 54-hole tournament ever feel like a real competition? Ironically, all it took was a 55th hole to provide a definitive answer. 

Dustin Johnson’s 35-foot eagle putt didn’t just seal a dramatic playoff victory, it capped off a three-day golf bender jam-packed with quality play, a star-studded international leaderboard, boisterous crowds, blaring music and perhaps a sneak peek into what’s to come when LIV’s league proper tees off in 2023 under a Formula 1-like franchise model. 

Yet LIV’s rapid ascent has only posed more questions about how it will fit into the current ecosystem of professional golf – most notably, how will the Official World Golf Ranking board decide to handle LIV tournaments moving forward? And will Norman’s league ever truly shake off the stench of its primary source of funding? The moral objections of associating with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia have triggered impassioned debate about the role of sports in promoting human rights. Yet, even in America where protestation has been at its heartiest, “This has dissipated into the blunt sentiment: ‘we buy oil from them, so why can’t we buy golf from them?’” writes US Golf Digest editor Max Adler. 

Whatever your stance is on LIV, one thing has become patently clear after Boston: it can no longer be dismissed merely as a series of exhibition events for guys past their use-by date. This thing’s legit. Here are a few more passing thoughts as we await the next play:

Does Cam Smith’s money grab pass the pub test? Gerard Whateley, perhaps the country’s most respected sports broadcaster and easily its most thoughtful and balanced, says this of Smith’s move to LIV: “I’m with Cam. I don’t think he becomes a pariah in the decision he has made, and I don’t think it tarnishes anything [he has achieved],” Whateley said via his popular Melbourne SEN radio show. Whateley gauged public opinion on the matter, as we have done on numerous occasions via our social-media channels, and the support was overwhelmingly in Smith’s favour. The vast majority of his callers – like our Facebook fans – aren’t fussed about the Saudi involvement. “If you have people tell you today that Cam Smith is on the wrong side of the pub test, it’s simply not true,” Whateley adds. “That’s people making up statistics to suit their own argument.”

Does LIV’s business model stack up? The tour hired McKinsey & Co. and other leading consultants to vet their business model and liked the reports, so they are willing to play the long game. They say the secret sauce is the increased revenue that comes from a commercialised league selling sponsorship of teams instead of hundreds of logos scattered across individuals who may or may not play a particular event, make the weekend or get airtime. Because the PGA Tour is a non-profit that benefits its members and charities, it can’t legally serve such sauce. Regardless, it’s actually futile to compare the beta-testing period LIV is currently wading through to the established PGA Tour. The real battle begins next year.

With Cam gone, will Aussies still watch men’s golf on TV? It will be genuinely fascinating to see what impact no Cam Smith, no Marc Leishman and very limited appearances of 15-time Major champion Tiger Woods will have on Fox Sports’ viewership of its PGA Tour coverage. For the hardcore golf fan, it may not be enough to alter their viewing habits. For others, the No.1 reason to tune in to international golf telecasts is to follow their country’s most popular players, along with the guy who has been the sport’s ‘needle’ for the past 25 years. On a positive, there’s still Adam Scott and the four unscathed Majors, for now. There’s also a conga line of Aussie women showcasing their talent via the network’s LPGA Tour coverage.

Can Australia really win out of this mess? There’s potentially a huge upside to Smith and Leishman moving to LIV Golf, something tangible and philanthropic. Reports suggest both have been earmarked as a future tournament hosts in Australia and could even custom design their own LIV Golf events with beneficiaries. Plus, having ‘The Mullet’ home for three to four months of the year will only increase our sport’s access to its most marketable commodity. America’s loss, it seems, will be our gain. Time will tell.

• What are your thoughts on the current state of professional golf? E-mail me at [email protected]