Shortly after the three-man paratrooper unit of former US Navy Seals carrying a jumbo-sized American flag touched down amid the screaming guitars of AC/DC’s Thunderstruck at ear-splitting volumes, Phil Mickelson was interrupted by a heckler as he stood over his first shot on the 16th tee.
“Do it for the Saudi royal family!”
Talk about awkward. The six-time major champion stepped away from his ball, composed himself as the gallery stirred before depositing his tee shot into a greenside bunker. And it only got stranger from there on a muggy, overcast Friday afternoon as the third event of the controversial LIV Golf Invitational Series creaked to life at Trump National Golf Club in the central New Jersey farm town of Bedminster.
Henrik Stenson and Patrick Reed were the joint overnight leaders at seven-under-par through 18 holes, two shots ahead of Thailand’s Phachara Khongwatmai and three better than Dustin Johnson and Carlos Ortiz. But the golf itself at the $25m Saudi-backed event continues to take a back seat to the ample controversy outside the ropes.
The steady backlash from critics who have accused the Saudi government of using their reported $2bn investment to sanitize the kingdom’s dismal human rights record, severe repression of women’s and LGBTQ+ rights and the 2018 murder of the dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi has been well-documented since the breakaway golf tour was formally announced in March. Same for its alleged ties to the September 11 attacks, which prompted a large protest on Friday morning led by survivors and victims’ families at the public library four miles down the road from the 500-acre grounds of Trump National. (That the former US president continues to plaster the presidential seal all over his club in violation of federal law is so far down the laundry list it scarcely warrants mention.)
But it was the surprising dearth of spectators on hand for Friday’s opening round of the 54-hole, no-cut tournament – a shock even in light of the LIV Golf’s flickering lifespan – that left more questions than answers on what return the tour’s Saudi backers can realistically expect on their investment.
For all of LIV Golf’s bluster about being a fan-focused alternative to the PGA Tour, there certainly weren’t many around to enjoy it as the third instalment kicked off. Organizers declined to issue official attendance figures, but Friday’s session played out before no more than a couple thousand fans despite a largely papered house and $75 grounds passes going for $2 on the secondary market. Volunteers began to outnumber punters on the more far-flung areas of the 7,591-yard Old Course, while the sparsely populated Fan Village – a cluster of outsourced food trucks, merch tents and corporate installations on a windswept plot of dead grass near the 11th fairway – bore an unnerving resemblance to Steven Yeun’s deserted theme park in the third act of Nope.
This is big-time sport as Potemkin village. All the earmarks of a major event – household names drawn by eye-watering $25m purses, nine-figure signing-on fees and garish perks – have not compensated for the credibility of a competition with no meaningful history or world ranking points at stake in a package that manages to come off as overproduced and slapdash at the same time.
The biggest crowds of the afternoon were reserved for Donald Trump, who led a caravan of golf carts around the grounds alongside Yasir al-Rumayyan, the golf-obsessed former banker and Newcastle United chairman who governs the Saudi Public Investment Fund. With nine holes to go, the former US president pulled up to the clubhouse as LCD Soundsystem blared from the loudspeakers surrounded by hundreds of giddy supporters and took in the finish from a custom-built terrace along the 16th tee, chatting with Caitlyn Jenner while pausing intermittently for photo-ops with VIP ticketholders. The fishbowl-like enclosure offered his fans outside a minute-by-minute view of the one-time chief executive, who was easily identifiable even at distance in his red Make America Great Again cap.
Even as Reed raced to the top of the leaderboard with six birdies from the 4th through the 10th holes to be matched by the late-charging Stenson, fresh off his removal as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain as a result of his defection, the biggest news items of the day took place away from the course.
Charles Barkley, the basketball legend turned beloved broadcaster, ended speculation that he would leave his longtime post on Inside the NBA for a LIV Golf commentary gig. Not long after, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson became the latest big name to cut ties with the PGA Tour, becoming the 12th major champion to join the renegade circuit. Hard to say whether it will make a difference, but the empty sensation of Friday’s affair portends an uphill climb.
Mickelson, who was reportedly paid a guaranteed $200m to join the LIV Tour as a player and lead recruiter, said he wasn’t disappointed by the heckler in an area where he’s been wildly popular after carding a five-over 75 that left him tied for 46th out of 48.
“No, I had a really good day,” he said. “I’m just frustrated because I expect more of myself.”