PGA Tour vs. LIV: Why the Masters holds the key to golf's future

Not that the membership of the Augusta National Golf Club ever lacked power or influence, but as the world of professional golf heads toward having dueling and rival high-end tours, it may be Augusta National, and that little tournament it runs each April down in Georgia, that has the most of whatever sway still remains.

That includes the Masters itself.

The Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour kicked off Thursday outside of London at about the same time as the PGA Tour banned 17 of the players participating in it, including Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson.

Getting beyond all the controversies over ethics, loyalty and player empowerment, the battle lines are fairly simple.

A golfer who chooses LIV is rewarded with a rich guaranteed contract and massive prize money (albeit with some morality gymnastics attached).

The PGA, meanwhile, provides a more established home with greater media visibility (at least for now) and tradition. However, you have to go out and earn your (non-sponsor) cash. Even Tiger Woods can miss the cut and get nothing from the prize pool.

Then there are golf’s four major championships — the British Open, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship and the Masters — as well as the Ryder and Presidents Cups.

These are golf’s most popular, prestigious and historic events. They attract more casual fans. Winning one can mean more than money.

“I believe in legacies. I believe in major championships. I believe in big events, comparisons to historical figures of the past,” Tiger Woods said last month, explaining why he turned down LIV, who reportedly offered him high nine figures.

Woods believes, as do some other golfers, that as this shakes out, being a member of the PGA Tour (not LIV) is how he will continue to compete in major championships.

Golf is old and complicated. Officially, none of the four majors are owned or run by either the PGA or European Tours. It’s sort of like college bowl games, independent bodies that stage the sport’s biggest events. The United States Golf Association hosts the U.S. Open. The Royal and Ancient Golf Club has the British. The PGA of America owns the PGA Championship.

And Augusta National has the Masters.

Dustin Johnson poses with the green jacket following his victory during Round 4 of the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club, Sunday, November 15, 2020. (Photo by Augusta National via Getty Images)
As a Masters champion, Dustin Johnson has a lifetime invitation to the golf tournament. But would Augusta National pull that invitation after Johnson and other past champions joined the LIV tour? (Photo by Augusta National via Getty Images)

The first three organizations are closely aligned with the PGA and European Tours. There are crossovers in business and leadership. Those are the bonds that Tiger recognizes.

It's clear at this point that the PGA Tour has no ability to stop LIV Golf. These aren't the dreamers of the USFL who will eventually be swatted away by the better-heeled NFL establishment. LIV has a near bottomless pit of Saudi oil money to spend. It can bleed cash and overpay for talent because the goal is more about promoting Saudi Arabia than making any tangible returns.

As such, the defection of top talent from the PGA is likely to continue, especially as the initial blowback fades. Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau — younger PGA stars — were the latest this week. They won’t be the last, even if the PGA Tour eventually concedes to some level of guaranteed salary (which would be ground breaking).

As of now, none of the major championships are blocking access to their events. Part of that is because it’s just all too soon — the U.S. Open begins June 16 outside of Boston. They are also trying to buy time.

However, if the PGA Tour is trying to keep its talent advantage, it will need every resource it has and every ally of the Tour will know it. It will certainly lobby to have the majors, plus the Ryder Cup, LIV-free. (Already, the PGA Tour is banning LIV players from the biannual Presidents Cup, which it owns; LIV players hailing from the U.S. are also expected to be ineligible for the Ryder Cup).

We’ll see, but there’s a decent chance the PGA and European Tours will succeed in getting the British and U.S. Opens, plus the PGA Championship, to follow along.

The Masters may be different. It is the biggest and most famous golf tournament of all, and is privately owned by the membership of a single golf club. Augusta National is not controlled or affiliated with any tour.

It just runs its tourney each year.

That leaves the Masters with a couple of decisions. Its long-stated goals are two-fold: hold the best tournament in the world and use its stage and finances to help grow the game globally.

It could decide that it needs to do its part to ensure the health of the PGA and other tours and thus ban anyone from LIV. Doing so would be a major boon for the PGA Tour.

It could also play it neutral and not concern itself with what tour a player competes on, thus allowing LIV’s top talent to continue to qualify for Augusta. That “neutrality” of course would be a huge victory for LIV. Missing out of the PGA Championship is one thing. The Masters is another.

The latter decision seems far more in the spirit of Augusta National, which has never enjoyed being told what to do or pressured into a decision. Its membership includes some of the richest and most powerful people on Earth. Augusta National wants to do what it wants to do. Plus, it already grants lifetime entrance to past champions, such as Mickelson, Johnson and Reed, so does it change that?

If the other three majors align with the PGA and European Tours, then the Masters could be elevated as a tournament. If the best golfers in the world are going to split by some percentage between the PGA and LIV, then they will no longer compete against each other.

Except, possibly, at one single event.

Sure, maybe Dustin Johnson is tearing it up on the less competitive LIV, but can he beat Scottie Scheffler and Jon Rahm and Jordan Spieth at the Masters?

This would likely create a competitive rivalry, with each tour hoping its top players wins the green jacket (or even finish top 10) as a sign of strength and superiority. There could be some nastiness, or at least pettiness, on the course.

Whatever the Masters chooses will be significant for the PGA, LIV and all of golf ... including those four days each April in Augusta.