- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 25, 2023

LIV Golf bills itself as, “Golf, but louder.” With a minimal platform and nontraditional format, however, does the upstart, Saudi-funded enterprise still make a sound, let alone a loud one? 

The nascent league packed full of former PGA stars tests that theory for the first time in the golf-devoted D.C. region this weekend, with a big bolster to its case for legitimacy: newly-minted PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka.

Koepka’s win at Oak Hill last week was his fifth career major title, vaulting him into the top 15 all-time. Significantly for LIV, he’s the first golfer to win a major after leaving for the two-year-old tour, which has dealt with chatter about a perceived lack of competition among its smaller pool of only 14 annual events.

Results from the year’s first two majors should quash that narrative. Kopeka and Phil Mickelson finished tied for second at the Masters in April, two of the three LIV members in the top five at Augusta National (Patrick Reed). At the PGA, Koepka was joined by LIV running mates Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Smith in the top 10.

“Look, it proves that we can play in major championships, proves that the schedule is good enough for us to win major championships,” DeChambeau said. “We have numerous players up on the leaderboard … Cam played well, I did all right, Brooks winning. It’s huge in general.”

Koepka demurred when asked what impact his PGA win would have on the rival tour.

“I definitely think it helps LIV, but I’m more interested in my own self right now, to be honest,” Koepka said.

But LIV is seeking to highlight Koepka any way it can heading into its first D.C.-area event this weekend at Trump National D.C.’s Championship Course along the banks of the Potomac River.

The Loudoun County, Virginia, club is probably familiar to most thanks to former President Donald Trump, who purchased it in 2009 and used it extensively during his presidency. It’s no stranger to tournament play, though, having played host to the 2017 Senior PGA Championship, won by Bernhard Langer.

“It’s a long golf course, right on the water. It’s pretty special,” DeChambeau said. “You get some wind. Those holes around the water are very difficult.”

To DeChambeau’s point, water is significantly in play on 7 of the 18 holes, and Nos. 8, 9, 10, 11 and 16 all reside right along the riverbank. The links-style course will suit LIV’s bombers — DeChambeau among them, even if he’s no longer the “Incredible Bulk” after a change in diet — with this weekend’s setup at nearly 7,500 yards and comparable to a championship length at Medinah or Quail Hollow.

“I think it’s [No.] 11 this week, they’re playing the right green, which is diabolical, so I’m looking forward to seeing how people are going to play that,” DeChambeau said. “But it’s a very, very beautiful, aesthetically beautiful golf course.”

The structure and rhythm of a LIV event may take some time for D.C.-area fans to get used to. A smaller, 47-player field will play three no-cut rounds — 54 holes, hence the Roman numeral in the tour’s name —  with a mid-day shotgun start to each round. Players are also divided up into still hard-to-remember teams of four, with golf-centric names like Iron Heads and RangeGoats.

“I understand the majors historically have 72 holes, but there is nothing sacred about that number,” Charles Howell III, a teammate of DeChambeau’s, said of the format. “Fifty-four holes, in a way, can be a bit more pressure in that it’s condensed, and you really can’t afford to have a bad run of nine holes or so, especially against these fields where you’ll find yourself falling too far back.”

LIV’s lack of visibility likely contributes to some unfamiliarity. Only eight of the 14 events are in the U.S. this year, and they’re only available to watch via streaming or the sparsely-available CW Network, which cut away from the final round of LIV’s Tulsa event in multiple markets earlier this month for regularly-scheduled programming that included paid infomercials and sitcom reruns.

This region, though, has embraced the game of golf in all its forms. Public and private courses, from hidden gems to historic links, are peppered across the District, Maryland and Virginia. So too are the nation’s major golf retailers and social spaces like TopGolf and Puttery. 

Fans also abound even without an annual area tournament to call their own, with last year’s relocated Wells Fargo Championship at TPC Potomac drawing a robust, umbrella-toting gallery on a soggy May weekend and a revamped Congressional hosting strong crowds for the Women’s PGA Championship last June.

“I love coming to the D.C. area,” Anirban Lahri said. “I think it’s an area that’s starved of good golf. I think it’s a really good sport-loving part of the country, as well. Like last year playing at TPC Potomac, I had a good week, and the grasses — as soon as I came back and I played yesterday, it was like, it feels like I’m almost in the same spot.”

It sounds like a simple equation, then, for a successful weekend. Yet, it doesn’t take into account the elephant in the room.

LIV Golf is funded by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund, the oil-rich kingdom’s sovereign wealth reserve, which has allowed for some of the wealthiest tournament purses in professional golf, including a $4 million payday to this weekend’s winner and $3 million to the winning team.

The source of the money backing the tour has led to accusations of sportswashing by the Saudis to cover up their human rights record, something Washingtonians are more attuned to than others thanks to the area’s political acumen and the sordid killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by agents of the Saudi government in 2018.

“I mean, look, we’re here to play golf. We’re contracted to play golf. I think the most important part is to provide great entertainment wherever possible on whatever platform that is, whatever platform that provides it,” DeChambeau said of the ethical implications of his decision last year to join LIV, which multiple golfers were asked about this week ahead of the D.C. event.

“When you can talk about ethics, that’s people’s perception,” DeChambeau continued. “I completely disagree with it, but everybody has the right to their own opinion, and I’d say, was it worth it? Absolutely. This has been beyond my dreams, what I could have imagined this becoming, and it’s only getting better.”

• George Gerbo can be reached at ggerbo@washingtontimes.com.

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