Channeling his inner Ernest Hemingway, CBS announcer Jim Nantz gave a brilliantly concise articulation of Brooks Koepka’s recent resurgence, culminating in a win at Sunday’s PGA Championship in Rochester.
"He's all the way back. Koepka… conquers the PGA at Oak Hill!" ⛳️?️pic.twitter.com/9li7bR8SiY
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) May 21, 2023
Building off last month’s runner-up finish at The Masters, Koepka is playing his best golf in years, reminding us what a dominant force he can be when healthy. While Koepka’s aloofness and general demeanor isn’t for everyone, no one has ever doubted his prodigious talent, cementing his legacy as one of the great golfers of his generation by winning his fifth career major and first since 2019.
It’s been an eventful few years for Koepka, who arrived at a career low point in 2022, struggling to compete with his PGA peers before ultimately defecting to LIV last summer. Koepka’s departure was seen as an admission of defeat, taking the quick payday to join a controversial startup tour backed by Saudi investors. Koepka, at that point, seemed resigned to his own dwindling relevance, happily cashing in his chips amid a demoralizing stretch of missed cuts, injuries and growing resentment for the monotony of PGA life.
Koepka has openly admitted this, heavily implying that if he were playing this well last year, he never would have left. And while LIV certainly has its advantages—larger purses, a relaxed 54-hole format, no cuts and a noticeably lighter schedule—its reach has been minimal, a relative afterthought compared to its wildly successful PGA counterpart.
LIV initially targeted older players looking to make a quick buck before riding off into the sunset (that was part of its logic in pursuing Phil Mickelson). The league eventually pivoted to more aggressive tactics, looking to legitimize its brand by poaching younger, more impactful stars (Bryson DeChambeau and the polarizing Patrick Reed among them) in hopes of taking the PGA’s legs out from under them.
Conflict sells—that’s Entertainment 101—and the drama surrounding the PGA and its new primary antagonist was a game-changer for all involved, with LIV positioned as the ultimate disruptor, a worthy challenger poised to threaten the PGA’s longstanding monopoly on the sport of golf. That narrative fueled an entire Netflix series, Full Swing, though interest in LIV has since waned, viewed by most as a hollow vanity project bankrolled by blood money.
Beyond the ethical dilemma presented by its blatant display of “sportswashing,” getting into bed with bad actors in a clumsy effort to hide Saudia Arabia’s abhorrent history of human rights atrocities (Qatar followed a similar blueprint during last year’s World Cup), LIV doesn’t yet have the brand recognition to build anything resembling a consistent audience. Shunned by traditional network television, LIV suffers from a chronic lack of visibility, relegated to a streaming app and two days of weekend programming on a channel most known for its teen dramas. (Any Riverdale fans out there?)
It doesn’t help that LIV has routinely been undermined by its own broadcast partner. After a recent tournament in Tulsa ran long, many CW affiliates inexplicably cut the live feed, depriving fans of seeing Dustin Johnson compete in a three-way playoff with Branden Grace and Cameron Smith.
In Buffalo, the CW affiliate aired a skincare infomercial instead of LIV Golf. Maybe we can finally find Phil Mickelson a sponsor! pic.twitter.com/EYTlwXENDr
— Awful Announcing (@awfulannouncing) May 15, 2023
Getting bumped for a skincare infomercial is an exceptionally bad look, though it’s no worse than the optics of holding three upcoming events at Trump properties including this week’s tournament in D.C. Tiger Woods and other purists have diminished LIV as a lesser product, and while that’s largely true, their players have recently held their own at major tournaments with Koepka, Mickelson and Reed each logging top-five finishes at Augusta last month.
Koepka is undoubtedly one of the best golfers on Earth right now, proving it again on golf’s biggest stage. The 33-year-old’s performance at historic Oak Hill Country Club vaulted him from 41st to 13th in the world rankings, the highest position he’s held since October of 2021.
But is Koepka a commanding enough figure to elevate LIV beyond a novelty act? Mickelson, with his relatable everyman charm, probably could have shouldered that responsibility earlier in his career, but not Koepka, a chew-packing Stoolie who doesn’t even particularly enjoy golf, rushing through rounds while routinely dismissing the sport as boring. Even if Greg Norman wanted him to be the face of LIV, Koepka doesn’t seem remotely interested in that role, refusing to be paraded around as a corporate mascot.
Norman, who has overestimated LIV’s appeal at every turn, predicted that LIV players would storm the green at Augusta if one of their players won The Masters. No such celebration occurred Sunday. Meanwhile, ESPN and CBS don’t show LIV players any more than they have to on their broadcasts and never refer to the competing tour by name, reluctant to reward a competitor with free publicity. Nantz has been particularly scathing in his quips, rattling off one zinger after another. His assessment of LIV isn’t wrong — fearful of bringing attention to its meager ratings, LIV hasn’t shared its viewership numbers in over two months.
Seeing LIV players feature prominently in the last two majors is good exposure, serving to de-stigmatize Koepka and other tour defectors. Obviously, there are still hurdles to mainstream acceptance—namely having LIV events count toward world rankings and the looming question of whether those players will be allowed to compete at the upcoming Ryder Cup in Italy. But credit Koepka for pulling off the rare feat of having his cake and eating it too, making a fortune with LIV while still having access to each of the four majors (which, by all accounts, were the only tournaments he ever cared about).
LIV, for now, exists as little more than a parlor trick, a defiant counterculture experiment meant to expose the PGA’s own hypocrisies. Whether it evolves beyond that is up to viewers and how much the Saudis are willing to pump into it, but Koepka adding a third Wanamaker Trophy to his collection is unlikely to move the needle much for a failing tour that, for all its star power, is—and likely always will be—fighting for scraps.