It made perfect sense for LIV Golf to begin their 2023 campaign opposite the Honda Classic. With four of the PGA Tour’s ‘designated’ events coming in a five-week stretch, like a cackle of hyena’s targeting a wounded zebra in a healthy dazzle, it was clearly the weakling.
To have any chance of dominating headlines and attracting healthy viewership on their CW Network debut in the States, they knew they couldn’t compete with the clickbait and influencer heavy Waste Management Phoenix Open, the Tiger-hosted Genesis Invitational, Arnie’s legacy at Bay Hill or The PGA Tour propaganda machine at TPC Sawgrass.
And if you’d told them it would be Chris Kirk and Eric Cole in a Sunday head-to-head at the Honda, to continue the hyena analogy, they’d have been giggling uncontrollably.
It was supposed to be DJ, Brooks, Cam Smith, Bryson or one of the other big names at the top of the leaderboard in Mayakoba, but instead, we got Charles Howell III and Peter Uihlein.
For all intents and purposes, the top 10 at LIV’s big opener was equivalent to that at a sub-par PGA Tour event, with Cameron Smith the only star and all the other names instantly forgettable.
Not that an event needs a star-studded leaderboard to be entertaining. The Kirk and Cole showdown at PGA National turned out to be great television, even if the average golf fan probably hadn’t heard of either.
What made the Honda Classic extremely entertaining down the stretch was a combination of things.
Firstly, you had a PGA Tour rookie chasing his first big tour win at the age of 34. There aren’t many 34-year-old rookies in the major leagues of any sport, but golf is one of the few where such things can happen. Okay, that Cole’s father Bobby was a PGA Tour winner and mother Laura (nee Baugh) was a former US Women’s Amateur champion and LPGA Tour player means that it’s not quite the rags to riches story that’d make Hollywood sit up, but it’s compelling, nonetheless.
Secondly, Chris Kirk was chasing his first PGA Tour win since 2015, having battled alcoholism, anxiety, and depression in the meantime. Feel good stories are always welcome, but with the same faces competing in each event, the likelihood of such things happening on LIV are reduced to something approaching zero. Brooks Koepka was reduced to tears after winning the LIV Jeddah event last year having endured his own struggles with his game since becoming a four-time major champion and world number one, but it’s hard to equate the two.
Finally, a field of 150-odd well-matched professionals makes it much more likely that the closing stretch will be competitive, with at least two or more with a very realistic chance of taking victory.
On LIV, however, with the field capped at 48, the likelihood of a runaway winner is vastly increased. Unless we’re talking a generational talent such as Tiger Woods winning The Masters by 12, the US Open by 15, or Rory McIlroy streaking away from the field to capture his first two majors, foregone conclusions are the antithesis of compelling viewing.
For every nail-biting finish on the LIV tour – and to be fair, Dustin Johnson’s win at LIV Boston last year where five or six players simultaneously had chances to win it or make the playoff on their closing hole was an incredible 10 or so minutes – there’ll be a couple of snooze fests like we had at Mayakoba.
There’ll certainly be weeks where the PGA Tour serves up the sort of s**tshow (from an entertainment value) that we often saw during the ‘Fall Series’ and we end up with all the big names at the top of the LIV leaderboard, but they need to have those weeks much more than the PGA Tour need to avoid them.
LIV aren’t on the ropes yet, but the PGA Tour have bloodied their nose in the first round.
The hyenas aren’t laughing now.