At a LIV Golf Event, Thin Crowds and a Tense Start

BEDMINSTER, N.J. — Standing over his ball on Friday, Phil Mickelson, the prized acquisition of the new, Saudi-backed LIV Golf series, lined up his opening tee shot in the breakaway circuit’s event at Trump National Golf Club Bedminster.

Just as Mickelson, who reportedly received an upfront $200 million signing bonus to join the insurgent tour, was set to begin his swing, a fan 15 yards to his right yelled: “Do it for the Saudi royal family!”

Mickelson backed away from the shot as a security official approached the fan and told him he would be removed from the grounds if there was another outburst.

Appearing unnerved, Mickelson returned to his stance and finally struck the ball, which sailed 60 feet off-line and landed in a cavernous bunker. Stomping off the tee and muttering to his caddie, Mickelson would begin his day with a bogey.

The dominant LIV Golf slogan, barked in radio advertisements and posted on mammoth billboards in neon letters around the Trump course is “Golf, but louder.”

It’s not likely that the Mickelson episode, which occurred seconds into the first LIV Golf event held in the Northeast, is what the organizers had in mind.

For most of Friday’s first round it was anything but loud. Yes, there was plenty of music played around the grounds, from powerful speakers near greens and tee boxes. But thunderous cheering, the typical soundtrack of most professional golf tournaments, was nonexistent.

The crowds at the event, LIV Golf’s third tournament, were too sparse to hear any ovations wafting around the course. That may have been because it was a Friday rather than a weekend, but as an example, the largest first-tee crowd of the day was unquestionably for Mickelson, and it was about 350 people.

And Mickelson was hitting next to a large clubhouse balcony and patio. When he reached his first green, there were exactly 43 people waiting for him. While he played the 18th hole, a large luxury box overlooking the green was empty. Several thousand spectators were spaced around the course, but nowhere near the roughly 20,000 that might attend an average PGA Tour event. LIV Golf officials did not announce an attendance figure.

As the day wore on, certain greens were partially enveloped by fans standing two deep, but that was a rarity. For many attendees, however, this was not necessarily a bad thing.

Denny McCarthy, 29, of Kearny, N.J., was delighted with his unobstructed view of the 18th green. He planned to stay in the same spot for most of the day and watch each of the 18 groups of three players as they played the hole.

“There’s a beer stand behind me and the line’s not long either,” McCarthy said.

There were other noticeable ways in which the atmosphere was different than one at a PGA Tour event. For one, the players appeared much more relaxed. In interviews, LIV Golf players have talked about how the new circuit has worked to foster a collective spirit with extravagant pretournament parties at nightclubs and abundant reimbursement of travel expenses for players’ families and caddies.

Moreover, because of the controversies swirling around the circuit — including its financing by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, and the disquiet that it will forever splinter a revered golf ecosystem — the LIV golfers have felt ostracized. That has bred an us-against-them mentality that was evident on Friday. As the players walked the fairways, there was much more casual conversation among their groups than is customary at a PGA Tour event.

The team competition element may be a factor. At each LIV event, 12 four-man teams play for a prize of $3 million that the winner splits evenly, supplementing the golfers’ individual earnings.

“It feels very similar to playing college golf,” said Sam Horsfield, who, at 25, is one of the youngest players in the field. “You’re out there grinding on every shot to try and do well for the boys.”

But in the end, there is an overriding reason that the LIV golfers may feel more at ease, and more collaborative: Each player, in a sense, is guaranteed to be a winner. Unlike PGA Tour events, which send half the field home without a dollar, LIV Golf events have guaranteed payments. Even the last-place finisher will receive $120,000 for his three days of competition.

Those payouts have been made possible by the Saudi sovereign wealth fund, which has led critics to accuse the players of selling out to a country that is trying to paper over its poor human rights record. On Friday, a group of family members of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks protested near the course, asserting that Saudi officials had supported the terrorists.

But on the course, some fans, especially younger ones, fed off the camaraderie that they observed among the players.

“I like what they’re doing on social media, even seeing them enjoy the social events leading up to events,” said Jon Monteiro, 30, who traveled from his home in Reading, Pa., to the tournament on Friday. “The players are having more fun, and if they’re having fun I want to go and share in that atmosphere.”

Standing next to Monteiro was his friend Alex Kelln, 30, who lives in Rumson, N.J. Speaking of past PGA Tour events he had attended, Kelln said the tour had a somewhat unwelcoming stigma, which he described as, “You stand there and there are quiet signs.”

Monteiro interjected: “When we play golf there’s a speaker with music playing, and I feel like that’s how we’ve grown up playing golf.”

Neither Monteiro nor Kelln worry about men’s professional golf being fractured by the showdown between the tours.

“It’s healthy competition that ultimately will make them both better,” Kelln said.

As Monteiro and Kelln spoke, it was 90 minutes before the first shots of the day, before Mickelson’s encounter with a heckler. Before the crowds were thin and scant at many holes.

Monteiro conceded it was early in the LIV Golf experiment. He smiled and said, “We’ll see.”