BEDMINSTER, N.J. — LIV Golf’s Bedminster Invitational didn’t have the intensity of a major golf event that star Phil Mickelson is used to.
Instead, the players, whom LIV has already paid handsomely, engaged with fans throughout the round. They rode on golf carts with their wives and attempted putts with house music playing in the background.
As Mickelson approached the tee, he shook his head and stroked his five o’clock shadow that grew while he hid from the golf world over the last four months after controversy over his decision to ditch the PGA in favor of the Saudi-backed LIV Golf league.
The most well-known face of golf’s infamous defectors to LIV Golf had just missed two putts. The crowd of several hundred watched awkwardly as he approached the final hole of the day closer to the bottom of the leaderboard than the top.
“Jersey still loves you Phil,” one fan said, breaking the silence and forcing a smile out of Mickelson.
It was, in many ways, intentionally the antithesis of the rules and regulations the PGA Tour has built its brand around for nearly a past century.
“Things are a little different here,” a LIV Golf broadcast host said through Jumbotron speakers about two hours before tee-off. “This is golf, but louder.”
Loud meant many things at Trump National. It meant literal speaker volume as a “Hey Now” house music-style remix welcomed patrons just after 10 a.m. and when AC/DC’s “Thunderstruck” played as parachuters landed an American flag on the 16th-hole putting green moments before tee time.
It meant boisterous, too, as LIV Golf touted its plan to disrupt the sport with Bubba Watson joining the tour mid-broadcast. The individual with a staggering $4 million winner purse stared reporters in the face at the top of the media notes (something the PGA Tour doesn’t do).
“It is completely different from what you would've classically have associated with a golf tournament, but it is intended to do just that,” LIV Golf COO and President Atul Kholsa told Yahoo Finance.
At times, the league’s attempt at “loud” fell on deaf ears. Crowds were sparse in the latter part of the day on many holes, with easy walking access right up to putting greens. Some supporters, garbed in red hats and American-flag style clothing, were clearly there to see former President Donald Trump rather than a professional golf match. Others arrived earlier than intended, unaccustomed to a 1:15 p.m. start time.
Trump’s presence and the league’s Saudi Arabian funding created a sideshow that LIV hasn’t been able to shake quite yet. A heckler told Mickelson to “Do it for the Saudi Royal Family” before his first tee shot. That comment was loud enough to force Mickelson to step back from his ball and reset.
'We have to show people what this could be'
LIV is still in its startup stage. As Khosla told Yahoo Finance, LIV Golf is still taking “baby steps.”
Last weekend’s event was only its third of the season. Multiple league employees indicated to Yahoo Finance that LIV Golf has grown faster than anticipated. So while the billions of dollars spent and big names joining the tour put reasonable optical pressure on the league, attending an event still comes with its quirks.
“We have to show people what this could be,” Khosla said. “We have to show people so they can touch and feel the product.”
Fans told Yahoo Finance they liked some of LIV’s changes to the golf paradigm, such as the shortened overall round (about four hours) and how approachable the players seemed. The broadcast, though only on YouTube (GOOG) and Meta (META) for now, is utilizing drone shots and mic’d up interviews live from the course.
There’s more to come from LIV on the business side, too. No brand sponsors splattered banners at the tournament and a streaming deal still weighs heavy on the league’s shot at profitability. Those are expected to come ahead of next summer when the league officially launches its 12 franchises that will have their own individual value.
For now, even the lavish spending can’t speed the league's growth fast enough. LIV Golf’s live audience is still akin to that of a startup league, not the one Mickelson and others are used to playing in.
The fans that are there skew younger, though, and that’s the goal. Eventually, LIV hopes, the rest of the golf world will come along for the ride too.
“I'm sure there are fans of traditional golf that may say we don't love this right now,” Khosla said. “I respect that, and I understand that.”
Josh is a producer for Yahoo Finance.