Augusta National doesn’t do December statements but, as with all other oddities of 2022, here…we…are. LIV golfers will indeed be allowed to play in the 2023 Masters, Augusta National announced Tuesday. You can exhale now, if you were still holding your breath.
ANGC Chairman Fred Ridley released a statement, here in the waning days of 2022, the most chaotic year in professional golf history. It said a lot of things but chief among them was that players who have qualified for the upcoming Masters via its typical, historical criteria will be invited to play in next year’s event. Phil Mickelson, you’re in. Bubba Watson, you too. Sergio Garcia, congrats. Even Kevin Na.
Hopefully you weren’t holding your breath, though. The modern Augusta National does most things in its own best interest, or the best interest of the sport, and it was never in the club’s best interest to bar some of the best golfers on the planet from competing. Even the simplest explanation works: To be in the discussion as the world’s best tournament, you need as strong a field as possible.
To ban LIV golfers would require breaking from form. It would require making new rules. It would require additional statements. Augusta National would have to be nimble and move quickly, which isn’t in the club’s DNA. It would require ANGC to candidly pick a side in a (extremely litigious) fight not of its own making. Why do that? ANGC would rather maintain the status quo, which is to play host the biggest golf tournament in the world, inviting players under these categories:
-Rank in the top 50 in the world at year’s end
-Win a PGA Tour event, or reach the Tour championship
-Win a major in the last five years, or finish in the top four last year
-Win any of a few, specific amateur events
-Win our event, or finish in the top 12 from last year
-Rank in the top 50 on March 27
As it stands, 16 players from the LIV Golf League will be at the Masters in April. The number is not likely to increase by more LIV golfers playing well (though Paul Casey winning the Saudi International is plausible), but more so if the league can attract more top 50 talent. And it just might. We’ll worry about that next month. For now, it’s worth noting that Augusta National feeling compelled to release a statement is uniquely a 2022 issue. The conversation among the biggest names in golf necessitated it.
In July, there was Tiger Woods taking a cue from a reporter and diving deep into hypotheticals:
“Some of these players may not ever get a chance to play in major championships. That is a possibility. We don’t know that for sure yet. It’s up to all the major championship bodies to make that determination. But that is a possibility, that some players will never, ever get a chance to play in a major championship, never get a chance to experience this right here, walk down the fairways at Augusta National.”
In September, Bubba Watson said he sat his children down and told them “there is a chance, there is a possibility, that we can’t go to Augusta.” Did Bubba know something we didn’t?
In October, Cameron Smith stoked fire while stating the obvious to ABC Grandstand: “I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to get back there. It’s a place that I love and I’ve got a pretty good record around there too. It would be heartbreaking if I couldn’t get back there.”
The press has helped prop up these storylines because, well, it’s a juicy idea! But also because it appeared in court documents. LIV has alleged that representatives from the club have, on multiple occasions, threatened ramifications against players who commit to LIV Golf, inclusive of disinviting them from future tournaments. If those threats were real, we’ll find out about it in the Northern District Court of California, a place Augusta National would generally prefer to avoid. The club already part of a Department of Justice investigation for anticompetitive practices. Banning LIV’ers now would present only a hardened stance in a battle they didn’t ask for.
And to be clear, it’s okay for ANGC to have a stance. It should have a stance, as one of the governing bodies in the game. Fred Ridley made this clear last April (before LIV Golf launched) and added more to it with Tuesday’s third paragraph:
“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. 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.”
The tournament is more important than anything else, Ridley’s saying. At least for now. He’s saying, We’re doing it. We’re moving forward. We’ll call the shots for 2024, too. Things will be different then, and we’ll wait to figure that out. Maybe it’ll come via another December statement 12 months from now. Augusta National is taking things one little step at a time, which only results in its tournament gaining significance.
The next time Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson share a golf course will be in April, in eastern Georgia. It’s the only place you’ll see Tiger alongside Sergio Garcia, too, pending the latter’s ability to qualify for U.S. and British Opens. As a matter of peacemaking, Scottie Scheffler better focus on that Champions Dinner menu.
The 2023 Masters is the next opportunity for Rory McIlroy to size up his game against Dustin Johnson and Cam Smith and Joaquin Niemann. Bryson, too. It’s the only forum on the planet (social media included), where we’ll line up Jordan Spieth’s opinions alongside Brooks Koepka’s and Max Homa’s and Patrick Reed’s. If you think Augusta, Ga., holds our attention every April, just wait.
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