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Tara Sullivan

It may have branded itself as ‘golf, but louder,’ but there’s no denying the hot mess LIV Golf has created

LIV Golf commissioner Greg Norman dispensed with any golf decorum at The International by tossing beers to fans who awaited the start of a three-way playoff won by Dustin Johnson.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

BOLTON — There was a fan sitting on the hill above the 18th green at The International Sunday afternoon, finding a rare bit of shade amid a hot humid day of golf.

“Wake me up when Phil gets here,” he announced to no one in particular, stretching back on the dirt as the threesome playing ahead of Mickelson’s group approached the flagstick below.

Of course there’s nothing unusual about golf galleries waiting for Phil, one of the game’s biggest stars and someone who has been drawing crowds for decades. Traditionally, if those crowds were gathering for him on a Sunday afternoon, and if they were doing so on the 18th green, that meant only one thing: their guy was in contention for a title.

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But on this day, that couldn’t have been further from the truth, with Mickelson languishing near the bottom of the 48-man field of the LIV Golf Invitational Boston, a tournament that ended with the renegade tour’s first Sunday playoff, where Dustin Johnson holed an 18-foot putt to beat Joaquin Niemann and Anirban Lahiri for the title.

It’s confusing, yes, because Sunday afternoon on 18 is traditionally golf’s most dramatic theater, the place you automatically know to turn when an event is winding down. But in the world of LIV Golf, where tradition is eschewed and gimmicks embraced, where a shotgun start reduces Sunday’s 18th green to nothing different than the other 17, where for viewers, at least those trying to track golfers vying not only for an individual title but as members of a team with names such as the 4 Aces, Iron Heads, or Majesticks, everything feels a little bit off.

It’s golf, only messier.

Messy not only in the unfamiliar ways of who’s-on-what-hole-when, team versus individual scoring, or three-day, no-cut competition, the radical, institutional changes that inspired LIV founder Greg Norman and his fellow PGA defectors to arrive at their actual slogan, “Golf, but Louder.”

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The loudest part of this tour has always come from its dollar signs, from the billions thrown at luring top players such as Mickelson and fellow major winners Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, and, most recently, defending British Open champion Cam Smith, money that is obvious not only in the lucrative prize pool for every event, but in a course set-up, fan experience, and production value that spared no expense.

But something can look clean on the surface and still be so messy underneath. And from the moment it became clear LIV would be funded by the financial arm of a Saudi Arabian government with a history of egregious human rights violations, from the moment it became just as clear that that pool of money would be bottomless in the Saudi’s effort to improve its worldwide image through sports, it became abundantly obvious that golf was headed for a messy future.

And here we are.

Phil Mickelson wore shorts on the practice putting green before Saturday's second round in Bolton.Mary Schwalm/Associated Press

Here we are, with Mickelson walking up that 18th fairway in black shorts, a response to another of the LIV changes, a wardrobe exception that Norman announced just the other day, waving at fans who made sure to admire the bulging calves Lefty has made Twitter stars of their own. Only a few months ago, Mickelson was keeping his head way down, his appearance at the US Open in Brookline smothered by the news he had defected to LIV, as well as the incredibly insensitive comments he’d made about working with the Saudis. Though he did receive applause while playing The Country Club, he also heard heckling. And when he, like nearly all of the LIV golfers in the field that weekend, struggled to make the cut, for many PGA loyalists, that seemed to predict an inevitable fall for LIV.

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But it’s obvious it’s not going away, as clear in the recent PGA changes to its prize structures, new elite tournament level, and base pay for rookies as in the anticipated announcement of a full worldwide schedule in 2023. As clear as the inclusion of a young rising star such as the Australian Smith, who declared of the atmosphere Sunday, “it feels like the course has a heartbeat.”

Though still impossible to find on traditional television, where it has no contract, and still with relatively miniscule audiences on the YouTube stream (about 166,000 thousand watching as a three-way playoff started with Johnson, Lahiri, and Niemann), the crowd on site, though far thinner than for a major such as the US Open, still showed up. With requisite Red Sox hats on their heads, plenty of Lily Pulitzer dresses on their backs, and drinks in their hands, they couldn’t quite fill the ropes on the fairways (much as the announcers tried to say otherwise on the stream), but they did manage to make some noise.

Norman presents Dustin Johnson with the winners trophy at the end of Sunday's playoff.Matthew J. Lee/Globe Staff

The “Golf, but louder,” moniker earned its bona fides if you were anywhere near the opening tee or spent any time in the fan village just beyond the entrance to the course. With music blaring, with skydivers landing amid yellow smoke on the first fairway, with a public address announcer encouraging fans to do their best New Year’s Eve impressions and join in on the official 10-second countdown to the start of play, there were times the decibels exceeded anything that would be welcomed at a traditional PGA event.

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And no doubt, that’s part of what LIV is going for, the happy disruptors of a game they believe needed to be rescued from boredom (for fans) and parsimony (for players.)

Louder, maybe, at moments. But messier too, and that’s a much bigger concern.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.