MIAMI BEACH — On Thursday afternoon, one week before the Masters Tournament, Greg Norman sat not at a golf course, but in a building populated that day by billionaires, royals and former prime ministers.
He had a case to make: that LIV Golf, the insurgent circuit that he has built with a 10-figure pot of money from Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund, has made itself into a muscular, undaunted rival to the PGA Tour.
Norman might have been too sanguine at times — in court documents, LIV’s own lawyers said the league had been relegated to a “secondary” television network and that it had faced revenues of “virtually zero” — but it may matter only so much. For many casual fans, LIV’s legitimacy, if the league lasts, is most likely to be settled at places like Augusta National Golf Club, not at meetings of the global elite or in a thicket of antitrust case filings.
LIV players have competed in major tournaments since their defections from the PGA Tour with varied results: Bryson DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson finished in the top 10 at last July’s British Open, where Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson missed the cut. This year, though, offers a more formidable test because it will be the first time some of the Saudi-backed league’s golfers will play the full cycle of the Masters, the P.G.A. Championship, the U.S. Open and the British Open, after months of reveling in a slimmer competition schedule.
If one of the players can break through and claim a green jacket or a claret jug or one of golf’s other great prizes, LIV will have achieved its mightiest measure of vindication to date.
A major championship would not solve LIV’s myriad troubles, including executive upheaval, exclusion from the Official World Golf Ranking and a product often drowned out by a PGA Tour loath to acknowledge that it has maybe taken a few recent cues from a new rival. Such a victory would certainly not extinguish the perception among critics that the league is tarnished by its association with Saudi Arabia.
But it could enchant fans and encourage at least some of them to keep tabs on a league that has, so far, largely been marked by bravado. It could intensify the pressure on the organizers of the major tournaments to find ways to keep LIV golfers more easily in the qualifying mix, and it would curb the notion that 54-hole tournaments are no way to prepare for golf’s most pressurized tests.
“Anytime you win the Masters or the Open, that’s usually a pretty big statement,” Koepka, who won two P.G.A. Championships and two U.S. Opens before he switched to LIV, said ahead of the circuit’s pre-Masters competition near Orlando, Fla. Even PGA Tour stalwarts have begrudgingly acknowledged that a LIV victory in a major, especially an early one like the Masters, would unleash a shower of athletic attention on a league that has frequently drawn more headlines for its finances.
The league’s best chance may come in Cameron Smith, whose thrilling Sunday showing at last year’s British Open earned him his first major title less than two months before he moved to LIV. But Johnson, who won the 2020 Masters with the lowest score in the event’s history, lurks. LIV will have five other past Masters champions in Augusta and an array of past major winners, such as Koepka and DeChambeau, looking to prove that they can contend again.
“At least for myself, it’s going to be business as usual going out and playing,” said Patrick Reed, who won the 2018 Masters. “Would I like to have LIV be up at the top? Of course. But really at the end of the day, it’s all of us going in there and just trying to play the best golf we can and be ready for the four biggest weeks of the year.”
Mickelson, who has six major tournament victories over his long career, the most of any LIV golfer, recently shrugged off the chatter about whether the league’s players will be prepared as “tongue in cheek.” Johnson has done much the same.
“Doesn’t make a bit of difference, no sir, not to me,” he said in an interview last month. “It’s golf. You play how many ever days you can.”
The results will bear out whether that talking point has any staying power, the evidence available for anyone to evaluate. LIV may not require an outright victory at Augusta, where PGA Tour stars such as Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm are arriving after months of generally excellent outings. But if the league’s players are well clear of the top of the leaderboard, the snickers will grow as much as some of the golfers’ bank accounts have.
LIV executives and Saudi officials have known for years that for a league to prove viable, it would have to include the biggest names in golf. LIV has attracted some, but relevancy is fleeting, and the majors represent the league’s best opportunity to dazzle people into interest in a new product. But if players such as Smith and Johnson are unable to recreate their past magic sooner than later, the league’s prospects could diminish into a circuit of also-rans.
Norman did not mention that possibility during his appearance on Thursday in Florida. Instead, he talked of administrative and operational “headwinds,” which he blamed on the PGA Tour, such as the challenge of securing vendors and sponsors.
But Norman’s presence on the stage in Miami Beach was somewhat remarkable, following months of a lower profile after he provoked broad condemnations for statements that downplayed Saudi Arabia’s record of human rights abuses. (In perhaps the gravest conflagration, he appeared to diminish the gravity of the murder of the Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, saying, “Look, we’ve all made mistakes.”)
Norman’s appearance on Thursday carried the imprimatur of Yasir al-Rumayyan, the wealth fund’s governor who took the stage hours before Norman declared that “our partnership and our investor is 100 percent sustainable — we are not going to go anywhere.”
LIV’s star turn at the event in Florida could be seen as a vote of confidence in Norman, who has defied months of speculation that his ouster as LIV’s commissioner was imminent. It was also a signal that Saudi Arabia’s interest in global sports has not vanished amid plentiful turbulence, not least in an American court system that has dealt the kingdom a series of blows.
Al-Rumayyan, who in addition to being LIV’s patron and the chairman of the English soccer team Newcastle United, said nothing in public about whether he intends to steer the wealth fund toward new sports investments. Before the audience of tastemakers and sought-after investors, though, Norman appeared to suggest that some in the Saudi orbit regard LIV much like a test drive.
“We know as we look at our platform and our business model, that can be replicated in other sports as well,” said Norman, a three-time runner-up at Augusta National. “Our first proof point is proving out what we’re doing.”
For the people who ultimately dictate a product’s significance — fans, not investors — the majors would be a good place to start.