The news hit with the cannon force of a 400-yard drive or the surging swell of a gallery’s emotion: Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are headed to LIV Golf.
The upstart Saudi Arabia-backed tour, which begins play this week outside London, had built a foundation of well-known but largely past-prime players — Sergio Garcia, Lee Westwood, Kevin Na, Ian Poulter and more. Then it added the surprising star power of Dustin Johnson, followed shortly thereafter by the globally popular Phil Mickelson.
Now it’s upped the ante with what could be its most consequential new members in DeChambeau and Reed. It could also include Rickie Fowler who says he's still contemplating joining the tour. Both DeChambeau and Reed inspire passion in fans — love them or hate them, they make you feel something, and that’s all too often a rarity in the khakis-and-sensible-collars world of golf.
DeChambeau’s appeal is obvious. He spent the pandemic lockdown hulking up, and he returned to the game a beefy scientist, preaching a strange blend of new-age philosophy and scientific analysis that he said would change the game of golf entirely. He didn’t do that, but he did win the 2020 U.S. Open, and crowds gather to watch him unleash mammoth tee shots that land in different area codes than those of his playing partners.
Reed has wavered between villain and hero, most often landing on the dark side because of his frequent dust-ups with officials and his propensity to complain about unfair treatment. Even so, he won the Masters in 2018, and he was on the winning side of one of the most memorable Ryder Cup battles of recent years against Rory McIlroy in 2016.
Even Fowler, who’s struggled through hard times the last few years, remains a favorite of young fans who continue to sport his eye-searing Puma gear even as he’s backed away from the garish looks of the mid-2010s.
All three of them draw fans and spark enthusiasm in a way that most LIV players – we’ll be polite and avoid naming names – simply don’t. All three are among the most-followed players at any golf tournament.
All three are also (relatively) young, with DeChambeau in particular just now entering the prime of his career. The goal of LIV isn’t instant profitability, it’s brand-building, and adding a player like DeChambeau helps the brand immeasurably by removing stigma and putting a familiar face on an unfamiliar product.
All this image-building is also known as “sportswashing,” and it’s why human rights organizations have leveled constant criticism at LIV, which is backed by the Public Investment Fund of the Saudi government. Players have tried to sidestep their connection to the human rights violations of the Saudi regime, but they’ll surely get questions at next week’s U.S. Open and anywhere else they make public appearances.
DeChambeau, in particular, will be a fascinating figure to watch. He had previously been rumored to join LIV prior to Mickelson’s comments about the Saudis; after that controversy, DeChambeau stepped back and reaffirmed his commitment to the PGA Tour.
As recently as last week, DeChambeau, who is recovering from injury, indicated that he remained loyal to the PGA Tour. “For me, I personally don't think that at this point in time I'm in a place in my career where I can risk things like that,” he said of a leap to LIV Golf. “I'm loyal to my family that I've created around me with sponsors and everything … I'm just going to keep playing professional golf and enjoy it wherever it takes me, play with the best players in the world.”
What changed for DeChambeau? Perhaps it was Mickelson’s return. Perhaps it was the fact that Johnson cleared a path and drew the initial criticism for going back on his word. Perhaps it was the USGA’s decision to let LIV players compete in the U.S. Open. And perhaps it was just money — unfathomable, life-changing money.
Whatever the reason, several of the most compelling figures on the PGA Tour are now running with LIV. The most serious threat to an established pro sports league in more than 40 years just got a whole lot more real.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.