Why Is LIV Golf So Controversial?

LIV Golf has captured the headlines throughout the past year – we look at what makes it such a divisive tour

Greg Norman
(Image credit: Getty Images)

LIV Golf and controversy have never been far away from one another. We look at the main talking points of the biggest talking point in the game as it continues to disrupt and divide the men's professional game. 

1) Out-and-out sportswashing

In its simplest form many believe LIV Golf to be sportswashing to cover up Saudi Arabia’s appalling human rights record. LIV Golf is funded by the sovereign wealth fund of Saudi Arabia, the Public Investment Fund, and it is said to have assets of over $620bn. It is happening in other sports with golf the most recent to get the message out there. Ronaldo recently moved to the Saudi Arabian league at the age of 37 where his play on the field will pale into insignificance with his 542 million followers on Instagram off it. Money works and sportswashing works.   

2) Two words.. Greg Norman

LIV Golf's CEO has always been a divisive figure in the game and it’s now becoming quickly forgotten quite what a swashbuckling and exciting talent he was for so many years. If any golfer deserved more Majors it was Norman. In among his on-course efforts Norman was always pulled in various directions by his business interests and in 1994 he proposed a World Tour which was rejected and many will point to a 30-year grudge with the PGA Tour. 

The Aussie has caught the headlines over the past year with his outspoken comments which make for very easy headlines. At the launch event at Centurion he appeared to downplay the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. 

“This whole thing about Saudi Arabia and Khashoggi and human rights, talk about it, but also talk about the good that the country is doing in changing its culture. Look, we’ve all made mistakes and you just want to learn by those mistakes and how you can correct them going forward.”

Had, for example, LIV Golf been led by someone like Fred Couples then we might have seen a different narrative from the beginning. 

3) The team element

For all the talk of how much we all want more team golf, the team element in LIV Golf has always felt forced with team names that mean little or nothing to the game and players would make huge sums on the back of their team-mates’ play. Pat Perez was the easiest target in the first year, finishing T29, T31 and T15 in his first three starts, shooting four over for nine rounds of golf, and he walked away with $2.5m in prize money, thanks to the efforts of his 4 Aces team-mates Dustin Johnson, Talor Gooch and Patrick Reed, on top of a reported eight-figure signing-on fee.

Due to the lack of TV coverage/interest the majority wouldn’t be able to name the different teams, let alone who in each of them.

In among all the criticism of LIV it's certainly worth repeating that this is still very early days and, for all the easy negatives, they will surely start to iron out the easy wins eg the team names. 

Sergio Garcia

(Image credit: Getty Images)

4) The personalities involved

Before LIV Golf erupted onto the scene if you were to place the players who were, let’s use divisive again, in one corner of the room then you would pretty much have many of the LIV Golf headliners. The hardest thing, for many of us, in the whole DeChambeau vs Koepka debate a few years ago was who was slightly more likeable. Throw in Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Bubba Watson and you’ve pretty much cracked it in terms of those players who have repeatedly let themselves down.

When you scroll through the list of current LIV players then it’s populated by many of the perceived ‘good guys’, like Martin Kaymer, Graeme McDowell, Lee Westwood, Louis Oosthuizen, Henrik Stenson and the current Open champion Cam Smith, but the strength of the opposite argument is too strong.

Many LIV players have been very open about their reasons for crossing the border, simply for money and security, but we hear far less about that. If the message could have been managed better along the way then things might have been more straightforward.  

5) The lack of genuine superstars

There is a huge weight of ill feeling towards LIV because of the players who haven’t been tempted. Rory McIlroy is the World No. 1 and he’s been regarded as the anti-LIV voice throughout. He and Tiger Woods remain the PGA Tour’s most important members. They are then followed, according to the PIP, by Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Jon Rahm. In the 2021 PIP standings Mickelson was second, after his PGA win, and DeChambeau fifth, after his win at Bay Hill and plenty of headlines that were less than favourable.

If you constantly have headlines where McIlroy, and Woods to a lesser extent, is repeatedly picking holes in a breakaway tour then a lot of people’s opinions are easily formed. 

McIlroy watches his tee shot whilst Phil Mickelson watches on

(Image credit: Getty Images)

6) We don't like change

Again, like the team aspect, we’ve all been crying out for different formats away from the groundhog nature of 72-hole strokeplay events. Then we get the 54-hole LIV-style tournaments and it’s not deemed proper. Of all the sports that don’t lend themselves to change very readily, then golf should be very near the top. There are no world-ranking points available and we might not see any LIV player eligible to play in the 2024 Olympics. Of far more interest to them their Major eligibility will also drop off. For example, Paul Casey was comfortably inside the world’s top 30 at last year’s Masters – this year he looks like missing out.

As golf fans we’re used to cuts – in LIV there are no cuts so there are guaranteed pay days to go with the guaranteed starts. We like players to earn their crust and to go through the ringer a bit - in LIV there are huge riches just for pegging it up. 

7) Growing the game (in the States)

LIV Golf’s roster of events in 2023 totals 14 three-dayers, of which three of them are at Donald Trump’s courses which is always going to divide opinion around the world and eight are in the States. For all the claims of ‘growing the game’ it remains very US-centric. If you are going to capture the fans’ attention through their new TV deal then their courses offer very little in terms of, say, a Riviera or Harbour Town on the PGA Tour or any classic links on the DP World Tour. While LIV claims to be ‘Golf, but louder’ not everyone wants all the noise and hoopla. 

8) Golf has become weakened

However you want to view LIV the strength of the PGA Tour has become weakened. It's impossible to say that a tour without the likes of Smith, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka won't miss them. We've become used to watching some very familiar names win a lot of tournaments and you could say with unwavering certainty that they beat as strong and as deep a field as was possible.

Now we face the prospect of a Ryder Cup in Rome where there is an element of an asterisk next to it given who won't be there. Until July 2022 Stenson was the captain of Europe before jumping ship to LIV.

Whatever the Dubai Desert Classic taught us Reed remains as good a player when in the hunt as anyone. We're all missing out and relatively few of us welcome the distraction. 

Mark Townsend
Contributing editor

Mark has worked in golf for over 20 years having started off his journalistic life at the Press Association and BBC Sport before moving to Sky Sports where he became their golf editor on skysports.com. He then worked at National Club Golfer and Lady Golfer where he was the deputy editor and he has interviewed many of the leading names in the game, both male and female, ghosted columns for the likes of Robert Rock, Charley Hull and Dame Laura Davies, as well as playing the vast majority of our Top 100 GB&I courses. He loves links golf with a particular love of Royal Dornoch and Kingsbarns. He is now a freelance, also working for the PGA and Robert Rock. Loves tour golf, both men and women and he remains the long-standing owner of an horrific short game. He plays at Moortown with a handicap of 6.