When Brooks Koepka revamped his Smash GC lineup during the offseason – trading for 2023 Individual Champion Talor Gooch and signing major winner Graeme McDowell as a free agent – the goal was improved depth to make the team more competitive.
The McDowell signing was announced in late November. The Gooch trade was finalized in mid-December.
Six weeks later, a format change for the 2024 LIV Golf League season was unveiled. For the first time in the regular season, all four scores will count for their teams in the final round.
Suddenly, a Smash team that already expected to be stronger now had another reason for optimism.
“I thought it was great having three,” Koepka said, “but then I think it actually turned to our benefit. Look, we've got a lot of firepower, a lot of guys on this team that know how to win, know how to play golf.”
It took just two tournaments into the 2024 season for Smash to reap that benefit, as Koepka & Co. won LIV Golf Las Vegas by seven shots.
At one point midway through the final round, there were four teams within a few shots of each other. But Smash pulled away down the stretch. The trio of Gooch, Koepka and Jason Kokrak were a cumulative 6 under on their last 18 combined holes; McDowell was 4 under on his last nine.
The foursome shot a cumulative 10 under in the final round – and was the only team with all four contributors under par, particularly impressive given the tough scoring conditions on a windy, chilly day at Las Vegas Country Club.
“With four scores to count here on LIV on Sundays this year, the expectation levels for the whole team, you want to play well for your guys,” said McDowell, the 2010 U.S. Open champ who spent the majority of his LIV career with Cleeks GC. “There's a lot of extra pressure out there. I think it's a phenomenal format.”
Meanwhile, Majesticks GC had the only other team score under par Saturday, shooting 4 under. Starting the round in last place, the Majesticks finished seventh to earn points for the team standings.
Had it been under the previous scoring format of just three rounds counting, the Majesticks would’ve finished outside the points in ninth.
“I’m much happier with four rounds,” added Majesticks Co-Captain Ian Poulter. “Everyone has got to do their bit, right?”
In LIV Golf’s previous two years, just the three best scores counted in the final round of the regular season, meaning a team could overcome a poor performance by one of its players. But with the format change, there’s no hiding in the final round. Good or bad, each player will impact his team.
LIV Golf captains Martin Kaymer and Kevin Na are at opposite ends of the spectrum concerning the change.
Kaymer, the Cleeks captain, thinks that new rule should be in effect over multiple rounds.
“In my opinion, it's still more on the individual side,” Kaymer said. “When we talk about prize money and things like that, I think it would be more exciting for fans if we go more team. Even maybe have the last two rounds count all four scores … I think we are heading into the right direction.”
On the flip side, Na – the Irons Heads GC captain – considers the change a bit penal for teams whose lineups can’t match the depth of the top foursomes.
“I don't think it levels the playing field, honestly,” Na said. “… I think making it three out of four was really exciting because when you make all four scores count, it's going to favor the stacked teams.
“Our team is great. We can flat-out all play. There's nothing wrong with that. But what I'm saying is when you've got a stacked team, I think they have an advantage.”
Neither the Cleeks nor the Iron Heads have been consistent contenders since the debut of LIV Golf for the 2022 beta season. That the format change falls between their captains’ opposing viewpoints is a positive sign for its implementation this season.
In fact, multiple captains were asked to provide input, and the majority favored counting all four scores in the final round. Previously, the only rounds in which all four scores count for each team happens during the final day of the season-ending Team Championship.
“A tougher test on Sunday for the teams is definitely probably a good thing,” said Ripper GC Captain Cameron Smith. “… A team could technically be up five or six with one hole to play, and it's really not over around here.”
“I think that's the way it should have always been,” added Torque GC Captain Joaquin Niemann. “That puts a lot more input on the team aspect. I think having all four guys making count every shot on Sunday, I think it makes it a lot more interesting.”
Makes things a lot more rewarding, too, for the teams that thrive under pressure. The first two tournaments of the season were claimed by the teams with the best performances in the final round.
At Mayakoba, Jon Rahm’s expansion Legion XIII won in their debut with a field-best Sunday total of 14 under to finish at 24 under for the week. All four Legion players shot under par on the final day. Finishing second in Mexico was Crushers GC, which had the second-best total on Sunday.
"I haven't experienced anything else, so I think it's better because even if you don't have your best two first days, your score still matters," said Rahm on the eve of his team's victory. "There's nobody going to be out there kind of just like, today doesn't matter. You can be in last place and still post a 7-under, which individually might not make a big difference, but you can help your team win.
"I think it was the right move because it's going to make the team championship even more exciting, so yeah, I'm glad they changed it.
Then came the final round of Las Vegas. Smash produced the best performance while Dustin Johnson’s 4Aces GC had the third best score of the day (even par) to claim second place, with DJ earning the individual trophy.
It pays to perform in the final round.
“This is what a team is about," Kaymer said. "When you play for Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, you cannot say seven players were good and four were [crap]. It doesn't work like that. When it comes down to that, all players should count, and I like that way of playing.”