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Why LIV Golf’s $10m Anthony Kim gamble may not be worth the risk

At long last, golf’s worst-kept secret is official. Anthony Kim, once the pre-eminent darling of the PGA Tour in the early 2010s, will tee it up this week in competition for the first time in 12 years.

The American, who has rarely been seen or heard from since his unofficial retirement in 2012, has been coaxed from his slumber by the Saudi-backed LIV Golf and will make his return at the league’s third event of the year in King Abdullah Economic City on Friday.

The decision represents a stark reversal in the now 38-year-old’s life, having seemed content to collect a reported $10m insurance payout after a slew of injuries hampered his meteoric rise.

Finishing second on his PGA Tour debut in 2006, Kim, or “AK” as became known, earned a cult following for his brash persona and fearless approach. Just two full seasons later, the American had notched up two victories and became the poster boy for the 2008 US Ryder Cup team when he thrashed European stalwart Sergio Garcia 5&4 at Valhalla. A further six months on, Kim became the first – and only – man to make more than 10 birdies in a round at The Masters.

But injuries soon took their toll. Thumb, wrist, Achilles and rotator cuff issues saw him plummet down the rankings before he vanished following the 2012 Wells Fargo Championship.

The terms of Kim’s insurance payout forbade him from making any comeback to professional golf, it was claimed, but when he began plotting a return to the sport earlier this year, LIV’s war chest soon came calling. What, after all, is another $10m, to the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF) that has already rolled out a £450m red carpet to sign reigning Masters champion Jon Rahm just two months prior?

Now, fans, overcome with nostalgia, are left salivating at the prospect of Kim’s return. What that looks like, though, is another prospect entirely.

The state of Kim’s game and body are virtually unknown and the task of re-conditioning both back to the rigours of professional golf after 12 years on the shelf should not be underestimated. Of the top ten golfers in the world when Kim retired in March 2012, only two (Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson) remain in the world’s top 200. Golf is increasingly a young person’s sport and longevity is hard to achieve.

To that end, LIV may be a more pleasant reintroduction. The league’s 54-hole events and less hectic schedule may allow Kim to re-acclimatise but Greg Norman and Co. certainly won’t want to see their new, shiny toy languishing at the bottom of the leaderboard, an outcome that seems entirely plausible and, perhaps worse, expected.

Then there are the bigger questions for LIV to answer. The off-season signings of Rahm, Tyrrell Hatton and Adrian Meronk notably improved the league’s quality. Their first event in Mayakoba gleaned an increased viewership, helped in part by a Sunday rainout on the PGA Tour but also by a more competitive and compelling golf product.

Anthony Kim was a star of the 2008 Ryder Cup in Valhalla (Getty Images)
Anthony Kim was a star of the 2008 Ryder Cup in Valhalla (Getty Images)

By granting Kim a wildcard spot, therefore, the league has fallen back on celebrity and hyperbole – rather than sporting competition – to drive its product forward. The PGA Tour would have, undoubtedly, extended countless sponsor invites to Kim if he’d wanted to return but the American would still have been required to play his way into the very best events.

In the same week that Bryson DeChambeau and Talor Gooch, two prominent LIV players, have again bemoaned the lack of ranking points given out to their events, the free pass afforded to Kim to waltz into LIV’s lucrative 54-man events after 12 years out will not aid their claims of a serious and competitive sporting environment.

Of course, much of that won’t matter to LIV officials. Sportswashing and an eventual deal with the PGA Tour and American sports owners seemingly remains the PIF’s end goal. Kim’s debut in the Middle East, even if shown on tape delay in America on the CW Network, will put their product in the spotlight and no doubt bring fans to their future US events.

But it’s also a move that could backfire. The allure surrounding Kim’s return lies in what he was and what could have been. If the American fails to reignite that spark, the buzz could quickly dissipate when fans realise what he has become. LIV has already traded some of its sporting integrity with its exorbitant signing-on fees and closed-shop model. If their latest gamble, for a reported $10m, now fails to land, it’s hard to know what they have left.