PORTLAND — As I sat on a hill near the 9th green waiting for the shotgun start at Pumpkin Ridge Golf Club for the second round of the Greg Norman-run Saudi Tour Invitational, “Thunderstruck” blasted from a sound system. No birds chirping here; it’s AC/DC turned up to 11.
When golfer Pat Perez walked by in his Jordans on his way to the No. 10 tee, an announcer directed my attention to the sky. Three men in parachutes were descending onto the fairway. One of them had a LIV Golf flag duct-taped to their leg. It might be that greed and duct tape are all that’s holding this together, which is what most of the established media is claiming, but the final round was sold out and everyone I spoke to at the event only had logistical complaints that more staff can fix. (The bulk of these grievances were mainly around the beer line being too long.) If the point of a sporting event is to have top talent compete in an environment that fans enjoy, this event more than succeeded.
The crowd at these Saudi Golf events is the most overlooked piece of this story, because it’s a group of people that the incumbent elitist golf community rejects. This is perhaps why the fans can overlook the sportswashing going on.
Beyond the noise of where the money is coming from, the most talk of the absurd money being thrown around, the recent defector, Saudi Arabia’s horrid human rights record, the brutal killing of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, contracts and tarnished legacies, is an unspoken snobbery around who can and can’t be a golf fan. That snub is deeply felt and embraced by this crowd that’s laughing at the PGA Tour and the establishment while they guzzle $5 Coors beers and heckle Chase Koepka. This is not Bushwood of “Caddyshack,” it’s “Happy Gilmore” — but instead of Adam Sandler, the stars are named Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, and Brooks Koepka, and this new gallery is pleased with Norman’s product.
Golf has always been an exclusive and elitist sport, but COVID changed that. With nothing else to do or watch, sports fans became golf fans. Throughout the two days I attended Saudi Golf in Portland, I overheard some really dumb golf commentary from an intoxicated peanut gallery. I watched the caddies — who seem even more protective of their players’ environment — shush spectators. I felt bad for the volunteers holding “Keep still” and “Quiet” signs to no avail. This tour’s crowd is rowdy and 12 alcohol monitors sound like enough for the front side, but double that for coverage on the back nine. The atmosphere was like Hole 16 at the Phoenix Open, except the bacchanalia wasn’t contained to one tee box — there was a contingent of similar enthusiasm and intoxication on every hole. A pre-flight instructional video on etiquette might serve well greenside, because the rules are important to know — and it’s clear the crowd doesn’t.
I saw the Country Club Adjacent idiots three yards behind D.J. inside the ropes. This is where I am used to seeing Dotty Pepper or David Feherty, just added to this rowdy tour, walking behind the leaders while providing witty and whispered commentary. Instead, it was social media clowns who were skipping — literally skipping — and taking selfies with their tallboys. D.J.’s clubhead speed was their background. Compare this to The Masters where cellphones are banned for not just fans — I mean patrons — but also the players, press, and staff. This Saudi Tour has a step and repeat banner 10 yards from the entrance. Golf influencers pair well with Millenials, Gen Z, and an overall broader, newer audience.
By midday, I wasn’t sure if I liked the “louder” part of this tour’s mission statement: “Golf but louder.” Whether it’s too loud, even for an outfit that is branded on being different and catering to the unwanted, is to be determined. Lee Westwood looked like he had had it by the 17th hole of the third and final round while he death-stared a gallery that refused to shut up behind the green. But, maybe the decibels were just right, and I’m just part of the sect that can’t get down with it. And unlike Lee, I’m not fiscally incentivized to tolerate “golf but louder.” I’m too indoctrinated into the tradition, which includes reverent silence. Like every Millennial, I’ll just blame my dad, a former Pennsylvania golf association rules official. I’m a hopeless purist who has played too many competitive rounds to tolerate incorrect observations. I was annoyed that someone thought relief was mandatory if one’s stance is on a cart path. How dare they not see that the lie was good?!
But, even as a traditionalist, I also hope golf is big enough for everyone. I know it is. This new fan base “vibes” with a digestible 4.5-hour event that doesn’t conflict with football on Sunday, offers cheap beer, and a concert after every event for those who haven’t succumbed to day drinking fatigue. Most importantly, LIV accepts and embraces fans for showing up without the fuss, collared shirt, or even sleeves. I felt overdressed on the golf course wearing a golf shirt.
LIV’s product might not be for me, but it doesn’t mean LIV’s product isn’t a slam dunk for people who find the PGA Tour too stuffy, which I think is exactly what they intended. I was the outlier, not the mean, and certainly not the mode in Portland. Whether or not the outrage behind the tour’s backing will outweigh these new fans’ affinity for this type of golf will be determined by actions the established tours take, and the responses from the new Saudi tour. The R&A’s exclusion of Norman, a two-time claret jug winner, could be seen as classy or classist, depending on who you ask (and whether or not they’re on the record).
I went back to my hotel room and turned on the coverage for the Irish Open to compare and contrast. After two days at a Saudi event, the programming felt more like a Headspace meditation track than watching golf. As an experiment, I put AC/DC on my AirPods and muted the television. I watched Shane Lowry putt to the prophetic lyrics “I was caught, In the middle of a railroad track (thunder), I looked ‘round, And I knew there was no turning back.’’ Right now, golf can’t turn back, so buckle up, because the train has left the station.