LIV Tulsa makes an impact, future to be decided

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By Ken MacLeod

After the successful debut of LIV Golf in Tulsa/Broken Arrow which concluded with Dustin Johnson winning a one-hole playoff over Cam Smith and Branden Grace, the first question on everyone’s mind was, will it happen again?

Tournament Chairman Frank Billings told Golf Oklahoma a month ago that it was almost certainly a one-and-done operation. Cedar Ridge was going to pursue a new clubhouse which would preclude hosting the event through 2025. The LIV players with Oklahoma ties most involved in bringing the event to Cedar Ridge, namely Charles Howell III and Talor Gooch, had already turned their attention to exploring other venues in Oklahoma for 2024.

However, the enthusiasm with which LIV Tulsa was greeted by crowds of more than 35,000 for the three-day run made some members, players and LIV staff eager to run it back in 2024.

“There’s no doubt the event itself was spectacular,” said Billings. “Now there’s just an involved evaluation process to determine if we want to do it again.”

Cedar Ridge board, members and staff will be assessing options in the coming weeks after determining how well the club did financially once all its obligations were met, the recovery time from the damage inflicted on the course and other factors, like whether or not LIV will contractually cover some of the excessive damage created by rains that fell Saturday and Sunday.

The LIV Golf operations team certainly proved it can run a well-organized, professional, efficient and fan-friendly operation in a compressed time frame. The players lived up to the LIV hype by taking apart a defenseless golf course to the tune of three record-tying 61s and an overall 48-man total of 353 under par. And less than a year after Justin Thomas gave Southern Hills a great champion in the 2022 PGA Championship, Dustin Johnson did the same for Cedar Ridge by winning the playoff against Smith and Grace.

Johnson and Smith, along with Brooks Koepka, are the three biggest stars LIV has lured in its controversial two years on the world golf scene. Throw in rising stars such as Talor Gooch, Bryson DeChambeau, Joaquin Niemann and Abraham Ancer and LIV Golf has a solid roster players to build on if its Saudi Arabian owners choose to continue to fund the league until it can actually break even or turn a profit, a prospect that seems distant at best.

LIV commissioner Greg Norman, reportedly ill after the two-week overseas trip to Australia and Singapore, missed a LIV event for the first time, one that in many ways was the most successful LIV event to date particularly in the U.S. Setting aside some of the inane, often fact-free or highly exaggerated Twitter ravings on both sides of the LIV debate, here are some issues both sides will evaluate in the decision on whether the event will continue at Cedar Ridge.

Charles Howell III

May Day, May Day!

When the possibility of hosting an event was first presented to Cedar Ridge by Charles Howell III, there were two possible dates, one in May and one in September. As negotiations officially got under way, the September date was off the table and only the early May date was an option.

Unfortunately Cedar Ridge like many courses throughout the state was hit by severe winter kill. Despite sodding all of its collars and some tee boxes, there was not enough time once it was determined which areas were actually dead versus slow to green up to repair all the damage and some of the hard hit areas on fairways showed poorly on television, leading to a field day online for the ill-informed.

Preparing a course in Oklahoma for a professional event in early May is always going to be a crap shoot, particularly if there is significant winter kill. At least two courses in northeast Oklahoma have already postponed significant events or had them moved due to winter kill. A summer or fall date would ensure Cedar Ridge or any course in the state has adequate preparation time from an agronomic standpoint and can show the best version of itself to an international audience.

Had LIV informed Cedar Ridge well in advance that it intended to play preferred lies all three days, the course may well have been more aggressive in its efforts to resod some of the fairway areas in addition to the collars.

Having three competitive course record-tying 61s shot, and two that could easily have been 59s or better, also made Cedar Ridge look less than the stern test it really is. A freak combination of no wind, rains that took all the firmness out of the greens, preferred lies and light rough due to the early date made it tough to stand up to this caliber of golfer. Only one of the 48 shot over par but then only 17 shot 9-under or better, an average of 3-under per round. The field shot 353 under par.

“With the conditions for scoring, we knew there were going to be some low scores,” Billings said. “How often in May do you have three days with no wind? These guys are so good that with perfect scoring conditions there are going to be some low numbers. But I thought the course held up well for the most part.”

The clubhouse question

Cedar Ridge has plans for and will vote soon on a $18 million plus renovation of its clubhouse. If the vote is to go forward immediately, the club would be unable to host a spring event until at least 2026. A late summer or fall event in 2025 could be a possibility.

Speculation that the money paid by LIV was going to fund all or part of the clubhouse is also wildly inaccurate. Director of Golf David Bryan confirmed that all of the funds Cedar Ridge makes after expenses would go back into improving the golf course.

Long-term LIV?

While Cedar Ridge, LIV and mostly Oklahoma golf fans proved that it’s a great venue for an annual professional event, the future of LIV remains murky. Pending court battles with the PGA Tour could have an impact. The success that LIV has in its effort to market and capitalize on its team aspect will be a big factor in whether it can achieve any financial stability other than being bankrolled by the Saudi Arabian Public Investment Fund.

LIV Tulsa had a total purse of $28 million plus the millions spent in set up and operations, course fee, security, marketing, staff etc. It’s doubtful the corporate and ticket sales, pro-am, merchandise sales and concessions paid a very high percentage of the cost of the event. Only those at the top of the LIV food chain know how patient the kingdom will be in this endeavor or how many billions it is willing to lose. Certainly the money is in the fund to continue it indefinitely should it choose to do so.

Franchising or selling sponsorships through the teams is a big part of LIV’s long-term plan and why it gears much of its marketing to its younger audience. Younger fans tend to think the team aspect is cool rather than just confusing and if there is some stability may come to identify with the teams (and buy team merch).  An informal poll of media in the press room Sunday found none who could identify the four players on any of the 12 teams except the Range Goats and the Four Aces.

LIV’s inability thus far to secure a profitable television package on one of the four established networks or the Golf Channel was highlighted in disastrous fashion Sunday when most of its CW Network affiliates including Tulsa and Oklahoma City cut away from the live broadcast at 5:30 p.m. to show game show reruns.

The fans came out

Attendance figures confirmed by LIV were around 12,000 Friday and a “sellout” of around 15,000 Saturday, with Sunday attendance around 7,000. The sellout number means that’s the number of fans LIV was prepared to handle with the number of shuttles it had at hand, volunteer staffing, build out and security.

The fans were treated to some spectacular golf that took less than five hours of actual playing time each day in a lively atmosphere. Certainly for those unconcerned by LIV’s political baggage it was a huge success and one for which Gooch, Howell, Billings and others within Cedar Ridge and LIV should be given great credit. What happens from here will be interesting to see.


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Ken MacLeod

Publisher Golf Oklahoma | Oklahoma's No. 1 Golf Source