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Perspective | This Masters reunion is a reminder of what golf has lost

Perspective | This Masters reunion is a reminder of what golf has lost

Tooba Shakir 54 years ago 0 0

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Wednesday morning in the practice area at Augusta National Golf Club, Phil Mickelson blasted shots out of the same bunker from which Justin Thomas did his own work, just paces away. They did not come to blows. Mickelson later teed it up in a practice round with Joaquín Niemann, a fellow player on the LIV Golf tour, and Akshay Bhatia, the PGA Tour’s most recent winner. The mission was to share, not sabotage.

The 88th Masters this week serves as golf’s group hug. The sport needs it. Dogs and cats, it turns out, can play together peacefully. If only there were a clear path to get more of the same.

“The best players in the world are together once again,” Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday. “The competition will be fierce. Families are reunited, and friendships will be renewed. The best golf has to offer is on center stage.”

These words were prepared, written down, read aloud. They were — as is everything at Augusta — intentional. It’s important that the people who run golf’s most recognizable tournament acknowledge that the sport they’re trying to grow is, at the highest level, broken.

“Look, the best players in the world never got together, week in, week out,” protested Brooks Koepka, a five-time major winner who is the most accomplished LIV player, the co-runner-up here last year. “That’s kind of forgotten.”

Fair enough. But before LIV, the best players could enter the same tournaments, week in and week out. Now, they can’t. The PGA Tour declared anyone who bolted for LIV a traitor. There’s currently no path back.

This is tiring. But it’s also unavoidable. Last year at this tournament — the first Masters after the sport’s great divide — there was an anxious curiosity about how it would all play out. There was a stated tension between the two sides, anger among the azaleas. There was also much skepticism about how prepared the LIV golfers would be. They play less frequently. Their tournaments are just 54 holes. There’s no make-the-cut-to-get-paid ultimatum. There’s less iron sharpening iron.

Given Koepka’s 54-hole lead, Mickelson’s Sunday storm from behind into contention and Patrick Reed’s tie for fourth — not to mention Koepka’s subsequent victory at the PGA Championship — those questions have mostly dissipated. LIV isn’t anywhere near as deep as the PGA Tour, but it did use the offseason to poach Jon Rahm, the defending Masters champ. That gives LIV two of the top five betting favorites here, joining Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Xander Schauffele, all ranked among the top five in the world.

Oh, about those rankings …

“We believe that it is a legitimate determiner of who the best players in the game are,” Ridley said Wednesday, citing the Official World Golf Ranking, one tool the majors use as a qualification for entry. Masters officials are part of the group that devise and tweak those rankings. Thus, Masters officials are part of the group that determined LIV has no place in them. Ridley made clear Wednesday: That’s not changing.

“It will be difficult to establish any type of point system that had any connection to the rest of the world of golf because they’re basically — not totally, but for the most part — a closed shop,” Ridley said. He’s right. Players don’t earn their way onto LIV through mini-tours or qualifying school. They’re bought by Saudi overlords to play a format that’s not duplicated on any other professional circuit. The LIV fields, therefore, aren’t determined by merit.

The Masters, though, can make its own rules. Yes, the top 50 in the rankings at the end of the previous year and the week before the Masters receive invitations. Niemann, a 25-year-old Chilean, qualified in neither way. Yet he’s here.

“We’re an invitational,” Ridley said, “and we can adjust as necessary.”

So Joaquin, because you played twice on the DP World Tour and won the Australian Open, you’re in. Congrats. Talor Gooch, a three-time winner during LIV’s 2023 schedule who finished atop that circuit’s standing for the year, is not. Which infamously rankles Gooch.

“If Rory McIlroy goes and completes his [career] Grand Slam without some of the best players in the world, there’s just going to be an asterisk,” Gooch said in a February interview with the Australian Golf Digest, noting that McIlroy is just a Masters shy of that feat. “It’s just the reality.”

It’s Gooch’s reality, not anyone else’s.

And really, a year after that first Masters of golf’s bifurcation, that’s all that’s left of the animosity. Schauffele, a PGA Tour mainstay, played a practice round Tuesday with Dustin Johnson, a pillar for LIV. Tempers have simmered. Olive branches are everywhere. Smiles abound.

What remains is confusion, and a sport that is less than what it should be. There was a “framework agreement” reached — completely in secret — between proxies of the PGA Tour and the Saudi-backed Public Investment Fund in June. Since, at least publicly, there has been no flooring and drywall installed on that framework. So the sport’s most important characters wait and wonder.

“They’ll need to figure out a way to evaluate how the LIV players are doing and how they can earn their way,” said Rahm, who can play here for life because he’s a Masters champion, but whose exemptions into the other majors will eventually expire. “ … There’s got to be a way for some players to earn their way in. That’s the best way I can say it. I just don’t really know what that looks like.”

Which, after all this time, is what amounts to consensus: No one knows what golf will look like next year, in 2030, beyond.

“I still love the PGA Tour, and I still hope everything [works out for] the best, and I still hope that at some point I can compete there again,” Rahm said. “I mean, you do miss competing against certain people, right?”

He’ll compete against them this week. Then LIV will head to Singapore. The PGA Tour will play in Hilton Head, S.C. Golf’s stars will go their separate ways, reconvening next month in Louisville for the PGA Championship. And with each week and month and year that goes by without a solution, a sport that should be growing is instead splintered, less than the sum of its parts.

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