St Albans, England
Pop music pumping, a marching band and a human statue scaring those walking nearby. There’s even a robotic, automated drinks transportation machine.
This is not your typical golf event. But it never promised to be so.
The inaugural LIV Golf event began in earnest at the Centurion Club just north of London, after months of speculation and controversy about this breakaway golf tour and the impact it could have on the future of the sport.
Backed by eye-watering money from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), the new venture has threatened to unsettle golf’s traditional set up, something to which the PGA Tour reacted to strongly on Thursday, banning 17 of its players – including lifetime member Phil Mickelson – for participating.
LIV Golf’s statement in reply to the punishment doled out was nothing but foreboding.
“The era of free agency is beginning,” it said.
And with the funding behind it, the flurry of stars signing up and the lengths the new tour has gone to appeal to fans, on the ground in St Albans, it sure feels like the beginning of something, not a flash in the pan.
Just meters from a massive bar and with loud music playing in the background, a group of young men try their hand at a putting challenge for an all-expenses paid trip to Miami while two entertainers, both on stilts and dressed in traditional 19th century British clothing, pose for photos with fans waiting to try their hand.
Just a few meters away, multi-time major winners Mickelson and Dustin Johnson tee off. The LIV Golf series is certainly making noise.
It’s taken a few years to get to this point, but, fronted by former world No. 1 Greg Norman and with some astonishing amount of money behind it – including $250 million in total prize money – the new golf league is here.
It hasn’t come without its bumps in the road. Warnings from the established tours – the PGA Tour and DP World Tour (formerly the European Tour) – have come and gone, while many players have expressed their reluctance to abandon the preeminent golfing establishments and their disappointment in their colleagues for leaving.
But for the fans in attendance that CNN Sport spoke to about the controversy over players appearing on the new tour and accepting money which originates from Saudi Arabia, a country with a heavily criticized human rights record, it didn’t seem to bother them. One told CNN before Thursday’s day play that he doesn’t “buy into the controversy.”
“I came to watch the golfers,” James Bowman said. “I follow golf, so I came to watch some of the best golfers in the world. I appreciate the issues involved but, personally, not for me.
“I’m supportive of more tours. I think more opportunity for more people to watch more golf. This is the closest a big golf event has ever been to my home, so I think it’s a good opportunity for more people to watch golf.”
Another told CNN that he believes that while the PGA Tour has been “great” for the game, golfers are “independent contractors” and should be able to ply their trade as and where they like.
A row of black taxis sit idle waiting to transport a selection of golf’s biggest names to their respective tees for the shotgun start – where all competitors start at the same time – another change implemented to make the product more appealing to fans.
Despite the breathtaking amounts of money behind it, it’s not all glamorous for the 48-man field as they sit and wait jammed into the back of the cabs alongside their bags.
As the most ambitious venture in golf nears its beginning, spectators are bombarded by a range of sights and sounds.
There’s a flyover from some old planes and trumpet blasts from some British army band members. They’re even treated to a Greg Norman sighting who came to witness the inaugural teeing off.
As its self-proclaimed motto says: “Golf, but louder.”
And at around about 2:15 pm UK time, they’re finally ready to begin.
Hundreds of fans gather around the first tee to witness Mickelson, Johnson and Scott Vincent tee off. However, around the rest of the course, the story is very different. Mickelson and Johnson on the first tee are a clear draw for fans. But for other players starting on different tees, it was a lot quieter.
“Just where you started, I was standing on the third tee box for about 10 minutes, and there was nobody with me,” Charl Schartzel said after the first round. “And eventually I took my phone out and I was phoning Graeme (McDowell). I said, ‘Graeme, mate, where are you? Am I on the right tee box?’
“That made it very different for me than what you would be used to being announced on the first tee.”
Ticket sales for the event have been slow, with players offering hundreds of fans the opportunity to win free tickets to attend. The tournament has a cap on 8,000 tickets per day and the official ticket sale numbers have not been released.
It’s hard to say whether there are close to 8,000 fans in attendance, but everyone is in high spirits, in particular at being able to see a legend of the game such as Mickelson work his magic. He’s met by his customary chants of “Phil!” as he makes his way around the course.
Between its fan zone, team format, fewer rounds and post-round concerts, organizers have attempted to pull out all the stops to appeal to a wide demographic. But not everyone is impressed.
For Paul Stubbens, who says he’s attended US Opens, PGA Championships and been to the Masters, the “immersive” fan zone area perhaps isn’t as special as he was expecting.
“It’s cool, but it’s no different to the PGA,” he said. “It’s not dissimilar. In fact, maybe I was expecting a little more from this one.”
Just when it seemed the golf might becoming the main storyline, the PGA Tour dropped the hammer, handing out suspensions to 17 players for playing in the LIV Golf series, minutes into Thursday’s opening round.
Many of the players affected were quizzed on it immediately following their round, with some, such as Mickelson, preferring to not comment, while others were only finding out about it then and there.
Meters away from the mixed zone where Mickelson was being grilled, golf author and journalist Alan Shipnuck – whose quoting of the six-time major winner on potentially joining the LIV Golf series, making disparaging comments about Saudi Arabia’s human rights record and asserting the kingdom was responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi for his upcoming book led to the golfer taking a break from the sport – was being asked to leave the premises.
In a moment captured by CNN Sport’s Alex Thomas and which has since gone viral on social media, Shipnuck was confronted by two security men, while LIV Golf CEO Norman stood in the background.
In a screenshot of a text conversation between Shipnuck and Norman tweeted out by the former, Shipnuck said: “Are you aware that I just got muscled out of Phil’s press conference by a couple of goons? Luckily for you guys I kept my cool and de-escalated the situation.”
Norman said he hadn’t heard, before Shipnuck replied with a screenshot of the video with Norman looking on at the incident in the background.
“You cannot make this sh*t up! I texted Greg Norman before someone sent me this video – I had no idea he was lurking behind me,” he tweeted.
The incident wasn’t the glamorous end to the day that the LIV Golf series will have wanted – and there will be many more uncomfortable questions to come – but golf’s new competition appears to be living up to its motto.