A new Ryder Cup-style team golf competition is coming to the US this summer, but instead of professional golfers, some of the most iconic and accomplished athletes in the world of sports will take to the links.
This is no “hit-and-giggle” event, organizers insist, rather an unprecedented showcase in which stars like Michael Phelps, the most-decorated Olympian in history, and Oscar De La Hoya, who held 11 world boxing titles across six weight classes , are taken out of their sporting comfort zone to square off in a competitive, fan-centric experience, the final matches of which will be live-streamed to a global audience.
The series of 10-hole matches between two star-studded 14-player teams – Team USA and Team “Rest of the World” – will be played June 30-July 1 at Liberty National Golf Club in Jersey City, New Jersey, and is the debut US event in what’s being called the Icons Series.
World Golf Hall of Famer Fred Couples will captain the US squad, which will also include players such as two-time Super Bowl champions Michael Strahan and Ben Roethlisberger. Another golf Hall-of-Famer, Ernie Els, will lead the international squad featuring boxer Canelo Alvarez, the winner of world titles in four weight classes; tennis player Ash Barty, a former world No. 1 and three-time Grand Slam winner; soccer player Harry Kane, England’s national team captain and a three-time Golden Boot winner; and legendary soccer manager Pep Guardiola, who won two Champions League titles and multiple Spanish and English League crowns. Other participants, from NHL legends to NBA greats, will be announced in the coming weeks.
“It’s going to be something that’s competitive, serious to a degree, and a lot of fun, but we wanted to take athletes out of their normal environments and try to humanize them by exposing their skillsets in their second chosen sport,” Icons Series CEO Thomas Brookes said in an interview. “So, really it’s getting to understand how they deal with a different kind of pressure when it’s not something that comes as naturally as perhaps their chosen sport does.”
It’s natural to assume the Icons Series is the next evolution of recent golf entertainment events like “The Match,” the latest edition of which – also in June — will feature star NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady, Aaron Rodgers, Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen.
But Brookes, a longtime sports agent, originally came up with the idea for a global golf team competition following the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah Country Club in Illinois, where the European team rallied for a 1-point victory over the US on the final day or play. Four low-profile test events have been held over the years, the first with international soccer players in 2013, followed by a bigger competition in 2015, when Couples brought a team of American athletes to Dubai. There was a 2017 event at The Belfry in England to test TV production methods and another the following year just for rugby players, with some initial thought that the model would be sport-specific.
Brookes said organizers learned a lot from the earlier test cases, including the realization that 18 holes was too long to watch amateur golf, it needed to be broader in terms of participants, and there needed to be more of a focus on story-telling to make it punchier for non-golfers. Exit polls at the 2017 pilot event found 72% of attendees had never been to a golf event before. But there’s no question the match-play competition needs to appeal to the golf purist as well, says Brookes, who acknowledges he’s never been a big fan of the so-called celebrity golf events.
“I’m not bagging events that are pretty cool, but I just found as an agent that while they were great for the athletes, it didn’t really resonate with anybody else and engage sports fans,” Brookes said. “I wanted to create something that first and foremost was going to allow sports fans to get behind a golf event that’s not a professional event. That’s not always easy to do when perhaps the level of golf isn’t professional.”
Athletes have bought in to the idea, quite literally, with 22 current and former professional jocks on the shareholders list for the Icons Series.
And the drawing power for this summer’s event will be significant, as the participant list has a social media reach of about 350 million combined followers. That’s about 10 times the collective social following for the pro golfers who competed in the most recent Ryder Cup.
Four of the five matches in the debut of the Icons series will be two-person team showdowns, with handicap indexes included. Several will be four-balls, in which teams of two players compete head-to-head. Two others will be “greensomes,” a variation in which each team selects the best drive among their two players and then finishes the hole from that spot. The final day’s matches will be singles, with live coverage beginning about an hour in – likely on NBC’s Peacock streaming service – with a broadcast that features highlights, pre-taped packages and interviews, not to mention PGA Tour-level data and a betting component .
Liberty National presented an ideal venue, being located in the nation’s biggest media market and having hosted not only multiple FedExCup playoff events, but also the 2017 Presidents Cup.
“We have an ongoing relationship with the PGA Tour, which we love. But with an off-year, we looked for a competitive event that would fill that competition itch here,” said Liberty National General Manager Lee Smith. “One of the fundamental features of this club is to host big-time competitions. Finding out the innovative nature of the event and combining that with our venue and the proven format of the Presidents Cup and team competition, we saw this as very appealing and something we wanted to be a part of.”
Matches will start on Liberty National’s fifth hole, the same one that started the 2017 Presidents Cup. The 10-hole routing will then loop along the Hudson River, offering views of the Statue of Liberty and the Manhattan skyline.
Attendance will be capped at around 12,000, with tickets selling for $70, including free parking or a ferry ride from New York City. Kids are admitted for free. There will be live music, charity activations, wine tasting, artists, a memorabilia tent, and Q&A sessions with participants.
And in terms of the competition itself, there will be an effort to match up both storylines and handicaps, too, so it’s a safe bet that pugilists like De La Hoya and Alvarez will be battling head-to-head with no handicap strokes given on the final day.
“For me, it was about — can we take the best athletes in the world that are really good golfers, put them into a team match-play environment where we literally make them feel like a Ryder Cup player for three days, and then create a broadcast production and business model that would allow us to create really unique content that would open up golf to bigger audiences from different territories around the world where perhaps golf isn’t a key sport?” Brookes said. “It’s fair to say we’ve managed to do that. We think we’ve found something pretty special at a good time.”