MARANA, Ariz. — Kevin Na had just finished his opening round Friday at LIV Golf Tucson and was headed back to the clubhouse at The Gallery Golf Club when he passed Kelli Bowers, the director of operations for Na’s team.
“Are we doing pizza tonight or not?” Na, the Iron Heads captain, asked Bowers.
“I would love to do pizza tonight,” Bowers said.
With LIV Golf’s business model of team play ramping up in Year 2, more is being put on the shoulders of the team captains, which means finding people like Bowers to handle not just team travel, social media and apparel, among other things, but even a pizza party to keep the team loose and help players wind down from the first day of a tournament.
LIV Golf has tightened the purse strings in its second year, part of that pulling back when it comes to team operations. No longer does the league fully finance the players’ travel, accommodations and other operational expenses. The majority of the 12 teams have registered as an LLC, consistent with the practices of any professional sports team, and now are franchises within a league and responsible for all expenses.
That means the captains are in a sense the owner of that franchise, at least until a business or individual steps in to purchase that team, which is part of the long-term model. Each of those captains has appointed a general manager, many choosing their agents.
“You have to have a lot of support from a lot of different areas,” said Phil Mickelson, captain of the HyFlyers. “You can’t be your best without help from others, and so you have to humble yourself and ask for help.
“We tried to have everybody associated with the HyFlyers from our fitness, our physical therapy, our coaching, our caddies, our family support systems, wives, as well as the executives who are running the team and doing all the day-to-day stuff.”
For Na, that support comes from his agent/general manager, Jens Beck of ProSport Management, who has started building a team of business leaders like Bowers.
“(The players) expect us to take everything off the golf course so they can play golf stress-free,” said Bowers, whose background is in golf as a four-year player at the University of Washington, a year on the Symetra Tour (now the Epson Tour) and seven years as the assistant women’s coach at Grand Canyon University.
That includes booking travel for players, their families, coaches and physiotherapists. Securing accommodations, some of which are deals offered through LIV. Making sure all the apparel is organized and ordered. Working on social media.
Now, those bills are paid by the teams, not LIV Golf.
Each team has four revenue streams: prize money, sponsorships, merchandise sales and revenue sharing from the league.
The only hard number we know of right now is the prize money. Of the $25 million LIV pays out for each event, $5 million goes to the top three teams. The winning team receives $3 million, second place $1.5 million and third place $500,000.
LIV Golf has announced two sponsors, global shipping logistics company EasyPost and Resorts World Sentosa, a hotel company based in Singapore. But no team has yet to announce a deal that could lead to patches on their hats and shirts.
Captains more involved with business side
For the captains, many are enjoying stepping out of their comfort zone and into the business side of the sport. Although the high-end players always have in a sense been a one-man business, working with their agents and putting together a team including a caddie, coaches, trainers, nutritionists and others before joining LIV, this is on a different level.
Some, like Brooks Koepka and Henrik Stenson, have made it a point to dive into the business side.
“I’ve been probably the most involved player here,” said Koepka, the Jupiter resident who captains Smash. “It’s a lot of work, but we got 38 off weeks a year.
“I enjoy the business side of it. I learned a lot.”
Majesticks has an unusual setup with three players, Stenson, Ian Poulter and Lee Westwood, listed as captains. Stenson appears to have taken on the biggest role.
“I got a bit of perfectionist in my personality, so the same as I demand a lot when I’m practicing and playing, I want the team to do well and everything that goes around it whether it’s the gear we’re playing in to our travel,” Stenson said. “I want it to be as seamless as possible.”
And even though Bowers is doing the legwork for Iron Heads, all ideas and decisions are run by Na.
“He’s really involved,” she said. “Everything I have an idea on I take straight to him we talk through it and we either love it or hate it. Try it or don’t.”
Said Na: “There are times I have to pull myself back and say I need to focus on the game.”
Golfers at heart
Still, these guys are golfers at heart. Some have been playing competitively for 30 to 40 years. Others still are young where golf is their family, their life.
Which is why, whether they embrace the business side or view it like Torque captain Joaquin Niemann, who admits it’s “really not my favorite part, I prefer to play golf,” the priority is taking care of their team.
Once the team is formed, which happened during an offseason that ran from the final day of the team championship at Doral in late October to the first event this season three weeks ago, the job of the captains is to make sure the other three players continue making birdies.
“I said it before when I was on Ryder Cup teams, Presidents Cup teams, when I have a partner, my job is to make them loose, make them focused, let them enjoy the round,” said RangeGoats captain Bubba Watson. “Now it’s a different level. I’ve got three guys that I want to be here for, whatever they need me to do, whatever they need the team to do.
“I’m just trying to fire those guys up,” the 44-year-old Watson continued. “When this old guy is beating them or outdriving them, that puts a little fire under them.”
Cameron Smith, who joined the Saudi-backed league after winning the 2022 Open Championship, surrounded himself with familiar faces to help smooth the transition.
The Aussie captains a team (Ripper) with three countrymates: Marc Leishman, Matt Jones and Jed Morgan.
“Just hanging out with three good mates,” Smith said when asked what his biggest responsibility is as a team captain. “All the boys are really good boys. It’s kind of a different role for me, but I love it. There’s a few more responsibilities but all that stress is at home, which is nice. It’s something to do.”
For Watson, a two-time majors champion with 12 PGA Tour titles, LIV has rejuvenated a career that is on the back nine.
“As a young kid, I never thought there was an opportunity but now there is an opportunity to be a franchise owner,” Watson said. “I can’t afford an NBA or a baseball team or an NFL team or a hockey team or any other team. So it’s cool that I’m part of the start of history.
“So from the business aspect, it’s been a dream come true.”