DORAL, FLORIDA | One year ago, almost to the day, Greg Norman stood in front of a small group of invited guests in a downstairs meeting room in a New York City hotel and laid out the concept behind LIV Golf.
From concept to the completion of competition at Doral, LIV Golf has crashed golf’s party and, depending on which side of the war for professional golf’s soul one chooses, it has been either an aggressive success or a disruptor of unexpected proportion.
“Better,” Norman said when asked whether the tumultuous first year has met his expectations.
In what ways?
“The acceptance and the acceleration of the business model and what it truly is. Taking away all the white noise, the people who understand our business model absolutely fall in love with it,” Norman said as jets approaching nearby Miami International Airport descend overhead.
“The players love it. The fans are loving it. Even the media are starting to grab hold of what the reality of it all is. It’s way better than I anticipated.”
LIV Golf is like nothing that has come before. It has fractured the professional game, igniting a battle between the establishment – particularly the PGA Tour and DP World Tour – and LIV’s band of believers.
Lawsuits have sprouted like flowers in the spring, acrimony is in the air and there seems to be no likelihood of peace talks between the opposing sides.
With approximately four months before the next LIV event and with the PGA Tour year coasting to its autumn conclusion, this could be seen as a moment when each side pauses to consider its options.
“That’s what has disappointed me the most. There was always room – always, always, always room – and there still is room for them to sit down and understand what we have and what this is all about.”
“We never said ‘immediately.’ We said we will apply for OWGR points. Under the rules and regulations in the handbook of the OWGR, we’ve pretty much checked all the boxes.”
As Norman talks, the thump of music can be heard in the distance. A pro-am is unfolding, including former President Donald Trump, and the vibe is relaxed. It helps that most of the 48 LIV players have been paid enormous sums of money to join the new league.
Literally, hundreds of millions of dollars has been committed to players, all part of a business model funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. There are legitimate moral and humanitarian questions surrounding the Saudi government’s direct involvement in LIV, and those won’t go away. Neither will LIV.
From a golf standpoint, the narrative is different. LIV needs a domestic television deal to reach its desired audience. There is uncertainty about when and if its events will include Official World Golf Ranking points. LIV also needs investors to buy into its franchises to offset some of the costs of the new venture.
All of those things, Norman says, are getting closer.
What about détente with the PGA Tour?
“I quite honestly think the ball is in their court; it’s not in ours,” Norman said. “We’ve tried. We’ve tried on numerous occasions, not just me personally but before I even came on board, we’ve had other high-up people reach out to try and explain it to them. We’ve extended an inclusion into the equity side of things where everybody would be the benefactors, not just the players. Every institution would be a benefactor.”
Trump, whose courses will host three LIV events next year, chimed in when asked after his pro-am round at Doral.
“I think ultimately maybe something gets worked out, but the tour mishandled it so badly,” he said. “The people at the top, something should happen with them, they mishandled it so badly. They had not only an advantage, they are dealing with very good people with unlimited money. They are good people with unlimited money, and something could have been worked out very easily, and the tour decided to go, as Richard Nixon said, to stonewall it. That didn’t work out too well for them.”
For those who have made the leap to LIV, it has had life-changing consequences. They have chosen a different lifestyle, theoretically fewer tournaments and long-term financial security.
Whether many of them have lost their avenue to major championships or potentially a return to the PGA Tour remains to be seen.
“Every player is really happy out here,” Bryson DeChambeau said. “In life, there is a lot of hypocrisy, and I just hope we can be on a level playing field and take information from both sides and make your own decision. If they come to the conclusion that this is not what they like, that’s totally fine. If you really take all of the information and you make the decision that’s best for you – and I’m talking about every single fan, whether they like the PGA Tour … you can like both of them, too. What’s the problem with that?”
It feels as if professional golf has landed in an either-or place. Rory McIlroy has become the voice of the PGA Tour while correctly suggesting that the ongoing animosity is hurting the sport. Phil Mickelson is front and center with LIV Golf, even though his explosive comments to author Alan Shipnuck regarding the Saudi Arabian influence nearly scuttled LIV’s first season.
In the space of 48 hours in February, Mickelson’s comments about the Saudis being “scary mother-------” became public, McIlroy prematurely proclaimed LIV Golf “dead in the water” and the plan Norman had detailed to his guests in October was in trouble.
LIV was prepared to launch, with players “locked and loaded,” Norman said. With the PGA Tour threatening to ban players who joined LIV and the public firestorm surrounding Mickelson’s comments, Norman’s group faced a critical decision.
“The decision came from the top, meaning us, saying let’s go out there and show the world what we’ve got. That was probably our biggest and toughest decision we made, instead of sitting idle for another 12 months,” Norman said.
“We talked about, do we sit idle? I said, ‘No, no, no. We can’t do that because of the way we’ve talked about it from October through February.’ We made the conscious decision to go.”
“If you really take all of the information and you make the decision that’s best for you – and I’m talking about every single fan, whether they like the PGA Tour … you can like both of them, too. What’s the problem with that?”
The PGA Tour followed through on its promise to ban players indefinitely, but many came anyway. The battle to get world-ranking points – a key currency in the professional game – is ongoing and will keep some LIV players from automatically qualifying for major championships next year.
Did Norman over-promise when he recruited players by suggesting LIV events would get ranking points?
“We never said ‘immediately.’ We said we will apply for OWGR points. Under the rules and regulations in the handbook of the OWGR, we’ve pretty much checked all the boxes. If you take a legal case on both, I don’t think there is much of a case for the OWGR to stand on,” Norman said, though LIV’s 54-hole, no-cut, 48-player fields fail to fit the designated requirements.
“I have conversations with (OWGR executive director) Peter Dawson. He believes LIV should have OWGR points. He does. Because what we are doing is good for the game of golf. What we are doing for the game of golf is what the game of golf needs: competition.”
When contacted via email by Global Golf Post, Dawson would not confirm Norman’s appraisal of those conversations, writing: “We have a long-standing policy at OWGR of not commenting publicly on applications that are being processed. I have to leave it at that.”
Added Norman: “There’s 23 tours out there with OWGR points, and there’s probably only one that’s superior to ours.”
Regardless of which side of the LIV argument one falls, there is no denying that it has dominated discussion this year. Drama alone will go only so far. At some point, the competition must matter more than it has to this point.
Who actually wins the LIV events has been almost an afterthought to the general public. The team concept, a point of particular pride and emphasis for LIV, has been slow to capture an audience. That will change next year, Norman says, when the franchises are locked in and team captains (who have an ownership stake) can build for the long term.
To make it work, though, LIV Golf needs a television outlet in the United States. Norman promises it will happen by the time LIV Golf resumes next year.
“We are speaking to three networks right now,” Norman said. “The stuff you read in the papers is not true. We will be coming to a decision pretty quickly.”
Norman won three PGA Tour events played at Doral in the 1990s, and it’s easy three decades down the line to forget how dominant he was. Only Tiger Woods was world No. 1 longer than Norman’s 331 weeks at the top.
Norman, a 67-year-old Australian who has made his home in southeast Florida for years, used his golf career to build a business empire, creating a brand that stretches across multiple platforms. He tried to get a world golf tour off the ground in the 1990s, but it didn’t happen. The PGA Tour later created the World Golf Championships, taking a page from Norman’s book of ideas.
Some say that act has driven Norman’s desire to challenge the PGA Tour. His personality and approach is off-putting to some. Like LIV, Norman is a polarizing figure.
“I don’t know where this narrative comes out where I was a divisive figure even when I played,” Norman said. “I’ve read stuff that when I flew into Doral here in my helicopter, the players were pissed off. Are you kidding me? Everybody flies around in private planes and helicopters now. I don’t get it. To say that I’m divisive is crazy stuff. I have texts on my phone before LIV on how Jay (Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner) and I were working on things. It’s nuts, absolutely nuts, to see where it is.”
On a quiet southeast Florida morning painted by sunshine, Norman finishes his breakfast and pushes back in his chair. He talks about his still-thriving golf course design business, particularly in Vietnam where he will build six new courses, and reiterates the value of expanding golf beyond the United States.
Asked if he had one thing that he would like to do over this first year, Norman doesn’t hesitate.
“Nothing,” he said. “There is nothing I have any regrets about.”
Reminded that it has been a year since Norman was sharing the details in private of what was coming, he smiles at how quickly the time has passed.
“The year has been the year,” Norman said. “LIV is definitely here to stay. We are not going anywhere.”
Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Sergio Garcia and others are getting ready to play.
There is music in the air.
“And here we are,” Norman said.
Here we are.
Top: LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman