Chris DiMarco and the mirage of LIV Golf riches in golf

Golf is now a sport where players can earn generational wealth in a short time ... but is it sustainable?

There's something you do better than any other person on earth. Maybe it's something dramatic, like throwing a fastball in the triple digits; maybe it's something mildly interesting, like naming every Taylor Swift song in alphabetical order from memory; and maybe it's something completely esoteric and personal, like making your grandmother's special meatloaf. Whatever it is, you — yes, you — are the best in the world at it, and that's pretty cool. Question is, how valuable is that skill?

Golf right now is suffering through an existential crisis of value, even if many of its principals don't quite seem to grasp the enormity of that crisis. The influx of Saudi riches and private ownership into the sport over the last two years have completely upended golf's economic expectations; top players aren't even swinging a club if seven figures aren't at stake. But have all those billions added to the value of the sport and those who play it best? That's the question rumbling deep below the sport's pristine green fairways.

Chris DiMarco, former PGA Tour and current Champions player, unintentionally unearthed this question on Wednesday when he discussed the vast differential between what Champions players make and what PGA Tour players can now earn.

"We’re kind of hoping that LIV buys the Champions Tour, to tell you the truth" DiMarco said on an episode of Golf's SubPar podcast. “Let’s play for a little real money out here. This is kind of a joke when we’re getting $2 million. There were like seven guys last week from TPC [Sawgrass, site of the Players Championship] that made more money than our (total tournament) purses."

DiMarco is one of those players blessed with world-class talent but cursed to possess that talent at the same time as Tiger Woods. He's maybe four shots from being a multiple-major winner; he lost in playoffs in the 2005 Masters to Woods and the 2004 PGA to Vijay Singh, and finished two strokes behind Woods in the 2006 Open. Injuries slowed his career, and he would never again get so close to the top of the mountain. He now plays on the Champions tour, where he has two top-5 finishes and four top-10s in 114 events played.

Chris DiMarco took Tiger Woods to a playoff at the 2005 Masters but couldn't quite get the win. (Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)
Chris DiMarco took Tiger Woods to a playoff at the 2005 Masters but couldn't quite get the win. (Icon SMI/Icon Sport Media via Getty Images)

"I was fortunate to play during the Tiger era, and got to play for some good money, but not like the kind of money these guys are playing for," DiMarco said. "Seems like every week there's another person passing me on the career money list after just a couple years on Tour."

DiMarco said he would have jumped immediately to LIV had it been available in his day, and the money would have been the driving factor. Maybe he was joking about the Champions needing more money, maybe he was serious, but the overall point is the same: Champions players make less, by an order of magnitude, than their younger brethren. Judge for yourself around the 12-minute mark below:

Do all golfers deserve more money?

From one angle, the Champions was LIV before LIV — regular-season events feature smaller fields, no cuts, 54 holes, guaranteed money. The tour started out as an opportunity to give fans another look at their favorite players of yesteryear; since golf is a much less physically demanding sport than, say, football, players can do a reasonable impression of their younger selves at a low-stakes three-day event. (Nobody wants to see a senior football circuit, and nobody would be able to play on it for more than a couple snaps.)

The Champions tour also offered players who started before golf purses grew astronomically — first in the Tiger era, later in the LIV era — a chance to make a few more bucks. Emphasis on "few," relatively speaking: Padraig Harrington, who won last week's Hoag Classic in Newport Beach, Calif., won $300,000 of the total $2 million purse. John Daly, who finished last, took home $1,160, which probably wouldn't cover the gas to get his RV to Arkansas.

DiMarco, for his part, won $12,600 for his T33 finish at the Hoag. That same finish would have netted him $39,410 at last week's Valspar PGA Tour event; $152,813 at the Players Championship two weeks ago, and $165,000 at the most recent LIV event in Hong Kong.

So it's understandable why he might be a touch salty, or envious, of the vast sums of wealth flowing into the bank accounts of his younger contemporaries. Who wouldn't be? Put aside — if you can — the Saudi origins of LIV's wealth; the thought of getting life-changing money from one tournament and generational wealth from one season is a seductive one indeed.

So you can't blame DiMarco. But you also can't look at the Champions tour, with its sparse crowds and virtually nonexistent cultural impact, and think the players there are generating value that would warrant an extra zero on those paychecks.

And that's where you can start zooming the lens out even further and wonder how, exactly, golf generates enough value to justify all these astounding numbers. To be blunt: While golf is a way of life to its devotees, it's a niche sport to many millions more. Most American sports fans pay attention to golf four weeks a year, at most — five, if it's a Ryder Cup year — and the sport's biggest needle-mover has won just a single major in the last 14-plus years.

There's nothing inherently wrong with being a niche or seasonal sport — many Americans can't name a single NCAA basketball player outside of Caitlin Clark, and the tournament remains one of the most popular sporting events of the year. But a niche sport can't spend its way into becoming an elite sport.

When will the bubble burst?

Skills are worth what someone is willing to pay, obviously. But at some point, that "someone" — whether it's LIV setting the market, or the PGA Tour trying to keep up —is going to run an ROI analysis. At that point, they'll determine that, no, it's not worth eight or nine figures to sign [LIV player here] to a contract. Perhaps that happens when LIV's first round of contracts runs out; perhaps it happens a few years later, depending on how much the Saudis want to put into this sport, and how long the Tour wants to match them raise-for-raise.

Sports have spent years wrapped in the fairytale belief that the arrow of growth goes forever upward and to the right. But the signs of a softening market are surfacing, like in baseball, where this year's marquee free agents have had to sign for fractions of their expected value.

That rollback will come for golf, too. Simply doing something better than everyone else on earth isn't enough. At some point, no matter how good you think your grandmother's meatloaf might be, you'll still need to find someone willing to pay for it.