The air of mystique surrounding Augusta National ensures a captive audience even when there is precious little to say. It would have been major news had the host club of the Masters announced that LIV rebels would be banned from the 87th staging of the major. Instead, in somewhat grudging and opaque terms, the tournament chairman, Fred Ridley, confirmed LIV players already eligible for April in Georgia – 16 of them, to be precise – will not encounter roadblocks at the end of Magnolia Lane.
The Masters is looking after itself. This is the same policy adopted by the R&A in respect to the Open. It will be an identical approach from the PGA of America and the United States Golf Association when it comes to the US PGA Championship and the US Open respectively. Locking out players, some of them carrying a high profile and some of them former champions, is not good for business. Cameron Smith, an LIV convert, is the holder of the Claret Jug. Television companies and sponsors would want to know why their “product” was being diminished for reasons separate to the tournament. Ridley, Martin Slumbers (his equivalent at the R&A) and the rest do not much fancy those conversations. So, instead, they tiptoe through the tulips. If this is partly understandable, it is also more than a little deflating.
Ridley’s position draws interest because of what he leaves to inference. “Through the years, legends of the game have competed and won at Augusta National Golf Club,” he wrote on Tuesday. “Champions like Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods have become heroes to golfers of all ages.”
Sarazen won the Masters once. Nelson and Hogan claimed Green Jackets twice. There was no mention of Phil Mickelson, an LIV poster boy, who is a three-time Masters champion.
“They have shown respect for those who came before them and blazed a trail for future generations,” he added of his carefully selected 10. “Golf is better because of them.”
Ridley took general aim at LIV. “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,” he said. The problem is this leaves observers to speculate about what those in charge at Augusta really think. The chairman may demonstrate the courage of his convictions if pressed up against the Butler Cabin with a five-iron, but not for now. Compare and contrast with Jimmy Dunne, an influential Augusta member, who asserted in June that LIV was an “exhibition tour”. This was one of his kinder remarks.
After a full year of LIV, the esteemed Augusta National is incapable or unwilling to articulate a complete theory on what this domain stands for or whether this is acceptable. And all because it wants to protect its one week per year or, although it sounds ludicrous, the Champion’s Dinner. Mickelson was a notable absentee as Woods and Rory McIlroy, firm defenders of the sport’s traditional ecosystem, were afforded honorary membership of the Royal & Ancient Golf Club in July. Will Lefty, Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson fancy breaking bread with Woods and Fred Couples, another outspoken LIV critic, in April?
There is an oft-stated case that the majors have increased in profile because they provide the rare opportunity to see all of the world’s top players in the one setting. This is a curious argument. They had this status before a breakaway tour. The notion that LIV, its associated Saudi riches, the fracturing of relationships and material harming of a crown jewel – the Ryder Cup – has benefited the sport holds no real value.
Greg Norman, LIV’s agent provocateur, was typically quick from the traps in reaction to Augusta’s news. “They should stay Switzerland [ie neutral] for the betterment of the game,” he said. “That’s the most important thing coming out of all this, competition is the best thing.
“The Masters should always be among the top four most elevated events and they’re going to have the best competition when they have the best competitors, all the competitors playing in their events.”
We are entitled to chortle about Norman’s emphasis on “competition”. His organisation guaranteed players sums rumbling into the hundreds of millions without them placing a tee in the ground.
There is a salient background issue here. LIV’s quest for official world golf ranking recognition appears no closer to successful conclusion despite its regular squeals and appeals. This was not in the Norman script when he was coaxing players to become rebels. Smith, Mickelson and Johnson are safe in medium-term major context because of exemptions earned from recent wins. For others, the prospect of sliding well outside of the world’s top 50 – and missing out in major spots as a direct consequence – is very real.
Which would lead to places such as Augusta striking a blow of sorts towards LIV. Given the majors form the rump of the OWGR board, this is elimination by stealth. The trouble is, Ridley left nobody any the wiser as to whether he would regard that as a victory or not.