Analysis-Golf-LIV Golf vows next year will be bigger and better

By Steve Keating

MIAMI (Reuters) - LIV Golf crowned a first team champion to bring the controversial Saudi-backed series to a close at Trump National Doral on Sunday, declaring the inaugural season a huge success and vowing to come back bigger and better next year.

The 4 Aces captained by Dustin Johnson collected the winner's prize splitting $16 million, which was just part of a whopping $50 million pay out that saw even the last of the 12 teams pocketing a $1 million for a single round of golf.

Johnson had said that it was the competition not the money that excited him but the former-world number one and Masters champion cashed in anyway finishing top of the LIV money list with more than $35 million from just eight events (including an $18 million bonus as the season's individual champion).

Bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, LIV grabbed the golf world's attention with staggering prize purses totalling $255 million while luring top players like six-time major winner Phil Mickelson away from the PGA Tour with huge signing bonuses that reports said totalled close to $1 billion.

But the Saudi money has come with plenty of scrutiny with critics accusing LIV golfers of being little more than well paid mercenaries in a "sportwashing" scheme by a nation trying to improve its reputation over its human rights record.

If sportwashing was the objective of LIV Golf, it failed miserably instead drawing attention to a number of Saudi involvements from the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi to the Kingdom's treatment of women.

While LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman was in Miami the Australian, who defended the Saudi Arabia's human rights record and Khashoggi murder saying "we've all made mistakes", kept a low profile holding no formal media availability leaving it to golfers and host Donald Trump to step in praise the project.

Describing LIV's Saudi backers "as good people with unlimited money", Trump teased that even more big names will be signing onto the rebel circuit next year.

"The Saudis have done a fantastic job," praised the ex-president after playing in Thursday's Pro Am. "And by the way a lot of other people are coming over, big names."

More poaching of players is sure to dial up the feud between LIV and the PGA Tour another notch, creating more chaos within the sport.

LIV will be rebranded as the LIV Golf League next season but will stick with what it sees as a winning formula, putting an increased focus on the team competition as it grows from eight to 14 events with prize money jumping to more than $400 million.

"You look at the strength of the league now and you have a lot of really strong players and you have a lot of really strong characters in the game," said Mickelson. "Whether you love them or hate them, there's a lot of guys here that people want to see.

"Were having a lot of current tournaments on multiple tours coming to us wanting a LIV event, we only have 14 so it's not like we have a lot to go around, but we're going to have an exciting year next year with a lot of strong play and a lot of strong tournaments."

During LIV's first season, what was happening out on the course was seldom the focus.

But LIV proved at Miami that it can produce an entertaining product appealing to a younger audience who descended on Trump National as much for the party as the golf.

All three rounds of the team final delivered some drama but those moments over the course of the season were rare with the Saudi cloud hanging over the U.S. stops.

If LIV Golf is to evolve into a major player it will also need to eventually find a broadcast deal and sponsors which so far have appeared hesitant to get onboard.

(Reporting by Steve Keating in Miami. Editing by Christian Radnedge)