POTOMAC FALLS, Va. – Six tournaments completed in the 2023 LIV Golf League season. Six different team winners going into this week’s LIV Golf DC.
This isn’t your 2022 LIV Golf beta-test season, in which Dustin Johnson and his 4Aces dominated the Invitational Series by winning all five events held in the U.S. during the eight-event global schedule. That would be a 62.5% success rate if you’re into such numbers.
Sure, the 4Aces already have won once this season while assuming their seemingly customary spot atop the point standings. And yes, Johnson only now has cranked things up, officially announcing that his sluggish injury-related start is over by winning LIV Golf Tulsa two weeks ago. Scary to think the 4Aces are where they are without DJ in top form
But the fact that the Aces are winning at just a 17% clip through the first six events has to make the other 11 teams in the League feel better about their chances.
Is this year’s team parity a surprise ... or was it an expected response to the 4Aces’ run last year when talk of LIV’s first dynasty quickly developed?
“I don't think we knew what to expect,” said Crushers GC Captain Bryson DeChambeau. “This year it's played out in that manner, and I think it's pretty cool. Just shows the testament of great play by each and every individual.
“One team isn't just dominating this year. The 4Aces are playing consistently well, but you see everyone winning, which is a testament to each and every individual playing to their full capacity, and this is what it's about. Competition. I think that's what drives all of us and what makes us want to win every single week.”
The Crushers set the tone this season by winning the opening tournament in Mayakoba, fueled by Charles Howell III’s four-stroke victory. The 4Aces were, naturally, runner-ups that week – but nine strokes off the pace.
The 4Aces were again runner-ups at the next stop in Tucson, this time behind Sergio Garcia’s Fireballs. It was a closer deficit, just four strokes. But the significant development in Arizona is that, for the first time, the Aces lost on U.S. soil – a sign that things might be different this year.
That difference, however, may have actually taken place late in 2022 with a change in counting score formats.
When the Aces romped through America with four straight regular season wins last year, the format was 2-2-3. In other words, two scores counted for each of the first two rounds, then three scores for the final round.
The format was adjusted going into Bangkok last fall to bring more scores into play, with a 3-3-3 format in which three scores count for every round. Of the eight regular season events utilizing that format (two last year, six this year), the Aces’ only win thus far came in Adelaide in April. Much like the Miami Team Championship last season, it was a showcase for the team’s depth, as all four members in the lineup finished inside the top 10 on the final leaderboard – the first time that has happened at a LIV tournament.
The Aces didn’t have the individual winner in Australia, as Talor Gooch posted the first of his back-to-back titles after opening with consecutive 10-under 62s. Having the individual winner is nice but not necessary for team success; just two of the first six individual winners in 2023 also played for the winning team.
If there’s a common thread among the first six team winners this year, it’s that the best performer needs to finish inside the top 3 on the leaderboard, and the second-best performer needs to finish inside the top 10.
Every team winner fits that profile, including Stinger GC, the most recent winner at LIV Golf Tulsa. Branden Grace tied for second after losing a playoff to Johnson, while Dean Burmester tied for eighth. Grace was the second player this season to lose in a playoff but enjoy the spoils of a team title; Carlos Ortiz lost in a four-man playoff to Danny Lee in Tucson but celebrated the Fireballs win.
With two strong finishers providing the majority of the nine counting scores for the three-round event, that means the other two players in the lineup can afford to have a bad round, as long as they bounce back with a good one. It helps if those bounce-back rounds are on alternate days, of course.
Take the Stinger victory. Grace and Burmester supplied three counting scores each. Meanwhile, captain Louis Oosthuizen opened with a 5-under 65 while Charl Schwartzel shot a 72. Oosthuizen’s score counted in the first round. Schwartzel then responded the next two days by shooting 67-66. That’s a
cumulative 12 under in those three counting scores – one stroke better than Burmester’s final 54-hole total.
“You need one or two players in your team to have a really good week and the rest of the team to rally,” said the Crushers’ Anirban Lahiri. “That's kind of been the story.”
A Sunday rally has certainly been the story for the 4Aces. Entering the final round in Adelaide, they were seven shots off the lead held by the RangeGoats but shot 18 under for their counting scores to win by one.
Even when the Aces don’t win, their Sunday rallies result in podium finishes. In Tucson, they were 12 shots off the lead after two rounds but shot 11 under to finish second. In Orlando, they were seven shots back but shot 15 under to finish third.
“That’s what we do,” said Aces star Patrick Reed. “Of course, we want to start better, but it's all about the finish.”
That’s why the Stingers’ win in Tulsa was an eyebrow-raising result. The 4Aces led by one going into Sunday but the South African team were two strokes better in the final round. It was their first victory since winning the inaugural event in London last year.
“The standard of golf on Sundays is so high,” Oosthuizen said. “… You need that Sunday round where three or all the guys really step up and just get good scores.”
On the flip side, Sunday struggles can be particularly frustrating.
Phil Mickelson’s HyFlyers GC have twice been in podium position going into final rounds but fell back after poor Sunday showings. LIV Golf Singapore was a perfect example. The HyFlyers were tied for the lead through 36 holes but had the worst team counting score on Sunday to finish in eighth.
The HyFlyers are among the four teams still seeking their first podium finish of 2023.
“Everybody is trying to figure out how this team format works the best for them and how they can help each other,” said HyFlyer Brendan Steele. “I think as
far as we're concerned, we've helped each other a ton, and our trajectory is fantastic.”
While the 4Aces aren’t winning as much as last year, they’ve obviously figured it out. Maybe it’s as simple as shooting lots of low scores and avoiding the big numbers. Of their 54 counting rounds this season, 45 have been in the 60s, while just one has been over par. They lead the League in both categories.
“Their team is very solid all the way through,” Steele said. “They're getting good rounds and good tournaments from everybody all the time. I don't think there's a big secret there.”
Others are catching up now, and perhaps LIV Golf DC will produce a seventh different team winner. If so, that would be good news to the HyFlyers – as well as Ripper GC, Iron Heads GC, Cleeks GC, Majesticks GC and Smash GC, the runner-up in Orlando when captain Brooks Koepka won the individual title.
Koepka enters DC off another individual win at last week’s PGA Championship. He’s not sure how much he has left in the tank this week, but if Smash enters Sunday in contention, you’ve got to figure the five-time major winner will make his presence known.
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