The Masters won't ban LIV Golf players ... for now
Undoubtedly, the PGA Tour would have loved the Masters to make a bold, decisive show of support and ban any golfer who is competing in the rival, Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour from receiving an invitation to compete for a green jacket in 2023 and beyond.
Augusta National doesn’t really operate that way, though, especially under its current leadership. It has never been one to be told what to do, or pressured into what to do, or even influenced into what to do.
And of late, it’s far more about seeking inclusivity and growing the sport than waging political battles.
So it should be no surprise that chairman Fred Ridley announced Tuesday that the venerable tournament would not be altering its policies for the upcoming tournament in April.
"Regrettably, recent actions have divided men's professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it," Ridley said. "Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers this coming April.
"Therefore, as invitations are sent this week, we will invite those eligible under our current criteria to compete in the 2023 Masters Tournament.”
That means no bans, allowing as many as 16 current LIV players to remain eligible for the Masters, which is the biggest event in golf. Anyone who previously qualified is still qualified. That includes past champions who receive lifetime exemptions — Phil Mickeson, Bubba Watson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel, all of who play on the LIV Tour.
It also includes those who have won a different major championship — US, British or PGA — in the past five years, the winner of the Players Championship (three years), the top 12 finishers in the previous Masters, anyone in the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings and various amateur qualifiers.
As such, other LIV tour players will qualify, too. Cam Smith is in for winning the 2022 Open Championship (British). Same for Bryson DeChambeau (2020 U.S. Open) and Brooks Koepka (2019 PGA, most recently). Others such as Joaquin Niemann and Talor Gooch make the cut because they are top 50 players at the end of 2022.
While this is a victory of sorts for LIV Golf, which didn’t want its biggest names locked out of the most anticipated tournament of the year played on the most famed course in the United States, it’s not like the PGA Tour is a complete loser here.
Far from it.
In the long run, this benefits the PGA Tour.
Those grandfathered in are grandfathered in, but as the years go on and if other majors either ban LIV players or the players' skills and competitiveness fade due to life on the richer, but less-pressurized tour, they will no longer be invited. Their numbers will dwindle.
Koepka would be out in 2025; DeChambeau in 2026. And no one will qualify via the world golf rankings by 2024 because the rankings do not recognize LIV tournaments.
The biggest impact may be on young, but not yet accomplished, talents. LIV may offer less work and more money, but virtually every golfer on the planet has grown up dreaming of playing in, let alone winning, the Masters.
LIV would offer no path to Augusta. The PGA Tour would.
Is that enough to turn down the Saudi money? Probably not for everyone, but it is at least a consideration. It’s not like Augusta National came out and said it would invite the best players from LIV regardless of world rankings or past accomplishments. That would have been a crushing shot at the PGA Tour.
Moreover, the Masters expressed dismay at the conflict and essentially threatened that it could change the 2024 invitation guidelines at an announcement this April.
“As we have said in the past, we look at every aspect of the Tournament each year, and any modifications or changes to invitation criteria for future Tournaments will be announced in April,” Ridley said.
So it could reverse course and become more pro-LIV. Or, more likely, it could follow what at least looks like a lean toward the PGA Tour and still ban LIV players. Or it could stick with the status quo and remain, ostensibly, above the fray, which in practice would result in a decrease in the number of LIV qualifiers in the years to come.
Either way, both tours have to know that it is watching their actions.
As for 2023, the Masters sets up as a battle royale of PGA v. LIV. There will be some awkward pairings, some uncomfortable seating charts at the champions dinner, and some potential tour v. tour rooting interests on Sunday afternoon.
“We have reached a seminal point in the history of our sport,” Ridley said. “At Augusta National, we have faith that golf, which has overcome many challenges through the years, will endure again."
The sport has changed, and not all for the better. The Masters is trying to remain out of it, but even by maintaining the status quo, it made a statement.