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LIV’s prime-but-undecorated players are the key — and the obstacle — to growth

Some of LIV's players will play in majors for years to come. Other young talents are watching their chances slip away.

Joaquin Niemann (left), seen with Dustin Johnson (center) and Bubba Watson, is one of LIV's players on the outside of majors looking in. (Doug DeFelice/LIV Golf via AP)

DORAL, Fla. — Let’s get the gold-plated, ivory-tusked elephant in the room out of the way first: Nobody needs to feel sorry for LIV Golf players, not for any reason. They made the decision to take mountainous paychecks from a morally questionable source at the risk of losing their pathways into golf’s majors. They knew what they were getting into, and went into LIV with eyes wide open.

That said … an interesting dynamic has arisen in the ranks of LIV players. You have the one-time legends, players like Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood, Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson, whose value now lies in their name, not their game. You have your elites, recent major winners like Brooks Koepka, Cam Smith, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau, who not only have the ability to compete at golf’s highest level, they have the major exemptions to let them do so.

There’s a third significant group of players in LIV, those with the game to compete in majors but without the trophies on their mantels. Talor Gooch, Joaquin Niemann, Mito Pereira, Harold Varner III and others have come close to winning majors — most notably in Pereira’s case, one hole away — but without those victories to support them, their opportunities are dwindling.

Gooch, LIV's individual season champion, has seen his Official World Golf Ranking fall from 31st — well within qualifying range for all four majors — to 201st today. Niemann has fallen from 15th to 68th, outside the necessary top 50 ranking. Pereira has fallen from 41st to 81st, while Varner has fallen from 35th to 150th. This is due to the fact that LIV tournament still don't count toward official world rankings.

“I don't have the world ranking right now, but I know I have the game to be competing on the majors and be winning majors,” Niemann said Thursday morning at Trump Doral. “So it's been kind of hard, not having the option of being in the majors right now.”

Bubba Watson, the two-time Masters winner who captains the Range Goats, has a suggestion for how to get players like Niemann into the majors: “Top 10, top 15 on the money list, our points list on LIV should get into majors,” he said. “Makes it easy. These guys are so good. The top 10 this year could play against anybody. You could make a U.S. Team, you could make a European Team, they could play with anybody, our top 10.”

So far, the majors haven’t embraced the idea. When asked about the possibility of reserving spots for LIV players, three of the four majors declined comment to Yahoo Sports. The PGA of America issued a statement that doesn’t clarify the situation going forward: "The PGA Championship invited non-exempt LIV players into our 2023 PGA Championship and we would anticipate a similar process taking place in 2024 based on players' performances in 2023 and the spring of 2024." Left unsaid: whether LIV results would count in those performances.

Meanwhile, Niemann faces a daunting task: Either cobble together points on the Asian Tour, a difficult prospect given the OWGR’s strength-of-tournament rules, or qualify his way into the two Opens through grueling qualifiers.

“I'm going to try to do everything I can do to get into the majors,” he said. “I'm not just going to sit down and wait for an invite.”

Watson and Dustin Johnson, both major champions, laughed at the idea that they might have enough pull with Augusta National to help get Niemann onto Magnolia Lane.

“I'm just glad I got an invite,” Watson joked. “Sorry, man.”

“Yeah,” Johnson said, “I want to keep that invite coming in the mail.”

Retaining LIV’s current level of talent, and attracting new talent of this caliber, is essential to LIV’s future success, assuming it continues as a distinct entity in the coming years. Older players like Westwood, Poulter, et. al. will cycle out, and without talented new players to replace them, LIV will lose whatever juice it now holds by having Koepka, Smith and DeChambeau in the field.

So why would that matter to anyone except the few LIV players who fall into this abyss? At the moment, it’s a non-issue, but if LIV can manage to persuade the Official World Golf Rankings to grant points to LIV winners, or persuade the majors to allow in LIV players, suddenly the entire landscape shifts. Players dissatisfied with the PGA Tour but unwilling to close off their pathways to majors could reconsider their stances.

“Hopefully they find a way to have the best players in the world in majors,” Niemann said. “I mean, that's all it is.”