A smile engraved on the face of Harold Varner III.
His season with LIV Golf was nearly over and the path ahead, while uncertain, included what had been a pipe dream for professional golfers – a true offseason.
“I’m going to hunt, to train. I just walked into The Grove XXIII [Michael Jordan’s uber-exclusive golf club in South Florida]laughed Varner during last week’s LIV Golf final in Doral. “I’m pumped. I go on golf trips, hunting trips, play with my child. I will find something to do. That’s what you want to do in life, you want to earn a living so you can grow old and enjoy life.
LIV Golf converts have been consistent on this front from the start. Tucked somewhere between “game growth” and financial security in the talking point hierarchy, the move to LIV and its limited 14-event schedule would allow for the kind of extended break gamers have always been pushing for.
For Varner, the 2 ½ to 3 month break is a chance to hang out at his 16-acre home in Gastonia, North Carolina, while Henrik Stenson, 46, had a much more detailed schedule for the first real off-season of his professional life.
“I’ve wanted this for 17 years and now I finally get it,” Stenson said. “I’m going to make the most of it. i will be home [in Orlando] for a big part and then we’ll go to Sweden for Christmas. I will train, spend time with my family. I don’t know if you have the right to say that. You get hate mail if you say you want to spend more time with your family.
Stenson and many who have joined the Saudi-backed league have been criticized on social media and beyond for using LIV’s limited schedule as a motivating factor. Critics say the decision to join the breakaway league was driven entirely by the guaranteed money players like Stenson received, and that’s a fair assessment. This is also an oversimplification.
Time away from the game – whether with family or coaches – has always been on a professional golfer’s wish list. Millions in signing bonuses drove players to LIV, but a true offseason didn’t hurt the sales pitch. The question now is how do players plan to spend their long-awaited “me” time?
Timings will vary between players, but most circled the Saudi international on the Asian circuit in February for a return to competition.
“I’m really excited,” said Paul Casey, who named the Saudi international as his next start. “Spending time with my family will be the first thing, but drive my cars, take them to the circuit. I sincerely love [cars]my passion outside of golf is cars.
For Varner, his schedule may not be completely devoid of golf tournaments. Ranked 46th in the world, he is motivated to try to stay in the top 50 by the end of the year to earn an invite to next year’s Masters.
Before the end of the year, options are limited for most LIV players. They could play the Indonesian Masters in December and as a former champion, Varner is also targeting the Australian PGA, where he could earn world ranking points as well.
Kevin Na had his sights set on at least one event over the rest of 2022, the QBE Shootout, which he and Jason Kokrak won last year, before joining LIV Golf.
“I don’t think we’re going to be invited back,” Na said last week. “The host was not invited. When Greg [Norman] is not invited to host, I don’t know how it’s going to be for us.”
The QBE Shootout field was announced on Wednesday. Na and Kokrak were not listed.
So instead, Na said he was considering adding a few Asian Tour events to his schedule to maintain his competitive edge. But above all, he is looking forward to an extended break to prepare for 2023.
“My coach and I have talked about some changes I want to make. We have a lot of free time where I can train harder than I normally would because I have so much recovery time,” he said. he said. “We talked about implementing some things in my golf swing where maybe I pick up a few yards. I feel like that’s the missing link in my game and I may -be a chance this offseason to change that.
Na, who is currently 41st in the world, was also eyeing the top 50 and a potential invitation to the Masters, but it will be hard to hold on. While LIV players universally embrace a true offseason, there’s a competitive reckoning. Whether they cling to world ranking points or simply the notion of competitive reps, some recognized the need for a more productive few months.
“For guys in their 40s it’s welcome in a way, but at the same time the rust builds up. You don’t want to let the competitive beast inside you sleep too much because it doesn’t maybe don’t know how to wake up,” Graeme McDowell said. “It’s not like you’re 25 or 30 anymore where you can turn it on and off quickly.”
Unlike the PGA Tour, McDowell and the other DP World Tour players who joined LIV were allowed to continue playing on the European Tour, and the Northern Irishman said he was considering a possible hybrid schedule to start the next year.
“I can look at the European tour schedule right before the Saudi international,” McDowell said. “If they would like to have me or if they don’t like to have me, we will make that decision when the time comes. I can try to play right before or right after [the Saudi International]. I could try to play a couple in the Middle East at that time.
Others, however, seem comfortable letting the competition itch come.
“There are plenty of good games at Whisper Rock [in Scottsdale], you don’t have to worry about that,” Casey said. “If you’re not sharp at Whisper Rock, you end up paying Colt Knost a few hundred bucks and, let’s be honest, nobody wants to do that. Colt Knost is the reason to stay sharp.
A tentative 2023 LIV schedule sees the tour begin its season in February in Mexico, which would allow players like McDowell to get back into shape at the Saudi International or on the DP World Tour, according to a court ruling in the Kingdom United in early February which could exclude players from the circuit due to their participation in LIV events.
But most of the time, players just want to get away. For the majority of LIV players, the breakout circuit’s first year has been a tumultuous one and a moment of calm away from the noise will be welcome.
“I try not to overreact. I haven’t been playing the way I wanted to for the past few months, but a lot of that has been noise and distraction and everything that’s gone with the negativity of playing LIV,” McDowell said. “I haven’t handled it as well as the other guys, but I’ve been starting to feel better about myself for about six weeks. I need a balanced offseason.