Balls in the air, missives in the post. Thirty minutes of the inaugural LIV Golf event had been played when a bulletin from Ponte Vedra overshadowed anything that was about to happen at the Centurion Club. Greg Norman stands with the banned of the PGA Tour.
The Australian had been all smiles on the 1st tee as Dustin Johnson, Scott Vincent and Phil Mickelson appeared as the marquee group. Speaking before making his way on to the course, Norman admitted his desire to take on golf’s ecosystem had been something of a crusade. His action was guaranteed to prompt a PGA Tour reaction. It duly did.
“I was sitting in the players’ lounge earlier, taking it all in, thinking ‘Oh my gosh, this is what it’s all about,’” Norman told the official broadcasters. “To see the players, to feel the caddies, to have the family members coming up to me. I said to all of them, ‘This is for you guys and the fans.’ We have been trying to get this thing off the ground for three decades.
“I just feel so happy for the players. I feel so happy that we have brought free agency to the game of golf. I’m proud for the game of golf. We are growing the game of golf.” And all with a straight face. Paying exorbitant, guaranteed sums to golfers is not growing anything. It also defies any basis of competition.
Norman’s claim – and this is a recurring one – that “free agency” has arrived in his sport is nonsensical. Players are beholden to LIV, their checks and by extension the Saudi Arabian public investment fund which writes them. Show ponies in polo shirts and slacks. Norman is not marching forward on some altruistic mission. That he is being kept away from the mainstream media during what should be a week to capture hearts and minds is telling.
The backdrop was pretty underwhelming. A pale imitation of the band of the Grenadier Guards playing trumpet music as a pale imitation of the Red Arrows flew overhead. London black cabs shuttled players to tees for a shotgun start. In Hemel Hempstead; one hopes drivers turned the meters off.
Those belonging to lawyers within the golf industry are running as if powered by Duracell Bunnies. Many had questioned the PGA Tour’s silence as Mickelson and al landed in the UK but it was only when shots were hit that disciplinary action could be taken. The DP World, formerly European, Tour will need to articulate its precise position before too long.
Natural intrigue associated with the product meant its YouTube stream routinely commanded tens of thousands of viewers at a time. The background was not so much commentary as excitable propaganda. “The first birdie in LIV Golf history,” boomed Arlo White as Martin Kaymer rolled in a putt. The rest of us have cause to ponder how on earth it has come to this for Kaymer, a former world No 1 and two-time major winner.
Later a “sea of humanity” was depicted from the booth. There was little by way of humanity as 81 individuals were executed on a single March day in Saudi Arabia. Thus far, golfers have done nothing whatsoever to highlight the kingdom’s human rights position while afforded the perfect platform. The depressing inference is that they do not care, an impression endorsed by the greeting of Mickelson and Johnson by the public investment fund’s hierarchy as they holed out at the 18th.
Mickelson donated his own branding, save a Masters logo on a vest that will have drawn nervous glances from Augusta National. His golf was initially slack, which was at least understandable given a lengthy absence from competition, but Mickelson recovered to open with a one-under-par 69. Johnson matched that score. Sergio Garcia is two shots worse off.
With attendance numbers not specified, we were left to speculate. The following for Mickelson and Johnson was decent enough – it is worth noting crowds on the DP World Tour are often poor – but there can have been no more than low four figures watching. Conversation with a handful of spectators failed to return a report of even one paying full price for a ticket.
Surely it stung the egos of Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, such celebrated English golfers, to be putting out in front of three men and a dog. Well known faces from inside the golf industry, fascinated by what this concept was really all about, walked outside the ropes. Perhaps the most unimpressive group in this whole tawdry affair, the agents who nudged golfers towards grubby deals, lurked in the shadows.
The golf was as golf is, on a nondescript course. Two and a half hours for nine holes undermined any sense that LIV will oversee the game in short, sharp form. Nothing that has transpired thus far depicts revolution. Or, indeed, that LIV will not simply occur away from the mainstream of sporting consciousness when early curiosity fades. Charl Schwartzel heads the field after 18 of 54 holes. The South African sits two rounds from a $4m bounty.
As this rumbled on, Rory McIlroy was opening with a 66 at the Canadian Open. Matt Fitzpatrick, who could not be tempted by Centurion despite the prospect of a huge payday in his own country, posted a 64. The unavoidable feeling is that the PGA Tour matters more to those with a sporting conscience. For all their chutzpah and dollar sign pull, this is what LIV have somehow to circumvent. The early signs are not altogether promising.
It is the bigger picture, one of civil war, that dominates. “Shot just got real” is a LIV marketing slogan. Too right it did.