LIV players are seemingly calling the majors’ bluff. Could the tactic backfire?

bubba watson phil mickelson

Past Masters champions Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson are now committed to LIV Golf.

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The tug-of-war in men’s pro golf feels two-sided most of the time. There is LIV Golf and there is the PGA Tour. But on occasion, rather quietly, a shadow figure hovers around that battle: the major championships. 

The pinnacle events of the sport, it is well known, are managed by various governing bodies. At times they are similar — the USGA and R&A act in concert to decide how golf is played at all levels — and at others they are different. But above all remains the notion that the majors matter the most. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe.

But how much do the majors really matter?

It’s a question that has only been seriously asked this year as LIV golfers have in return for huge paydays risked the means by which they have long qualified for those events. They have joined a tour that currently does not award world ranking points, the easiest means for major qualification. Rank inside the top 50, you’re bound to play in every major. Top 60, you’re probably fine, too. And while many LIV signees would prefer to see change to the system, their joining LIV implies an acceptance that they might not play in the majors at all. Bubba Watson admitted that dilemma Wednesday, detailing how he told his children they might not be able to go to Augusta National next year. He didn’t seem to enjoy having that conversation, but he’s certainly come to grips with all potential outcomes.

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Woe is Bubba? Clear-minded is Bubba, at the very least.

LIV golfers will play their golf and let the governing bodies decide how to deal with them. Marc Leishman may be the best example. Leishman said multiple times during his press conference Wednesday that “hopefully” the world ranking points “sorts itself out” so that the major championships are not hurt by LIV golfers missing from the fields. Leishman is currently ranked No. 62 in the world, and in any other year he could easily play his way into next year’s big events. He’s played in the last 31 majors, but isn’t qualified for any of them in 2023. He and many other LIV golfers continue to mention that the ranking stipulation will eventually be sorted.

At the moment, only a select few LIV golfers are qualified for the 2023 Masters, the next men’s major. Cameron Smith is, as the reigning Open champion. He’s got it good. But Mr. Major, Brooks Koepka, will see the exemptions from his 2019 PGA Championship victory begin to run out in 2024. Most of Sergio Garcia’s major exemptions ran out this year, and with his world ranking plummeting, he will need to qualify for the PGA Championship, U.S. Open and British Open in some other way. The same could be said for Watson, who won two Masters, but is already speaking out about the idea that Augusta National could change its qualification for play.

“And I told them,” Watson said, “if they tell me that I can’t go, being a past champion, then I don’t want to be there anyway because that’s just — that’s just the wrong way to look at it it’s the game of golf. We are all trying to be the best players.”

Sitting next to Watson in the press conference was Harold Varner III, who played in each major this season for the first time in his career. Varner admitted that when he won the Saudi International in January, his sole focus was to earn enough ranking points to qualify for the Masters. “This is my first year playing in every major, so it was cool,” Varner said. “But, like, I think it’s way cooler making sure my kid doesn’t have to worry about anything. That’s about it.”

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Varner and Watson both continued on this thought late in their presser as Watson discussed how Smith’s world ranking is bound to fall.

Watson: You are not going to be playing any majors if they keep dropping you. 

Varner: I know. But it will be all right. We’ll live. A lot of kids’ lives will change.

Watson: We’ll live; you said LIV.

Varner: A lot of kids’ lives will change. I guarantee that.

Watson: I’m with ya, man. I’m with ya.

The relative indifference about being in or out of the majors is a mindset a number of LIV golfers have seemingly adopted, but discussions on the topic are often accompanied by a belief that some sort of decision is bound to arrive. 

Joaquin Niemann, who also joined LIV this week, just about dared the governing bodies to conduct majors without them: “I think we’ve got a lot of top players here, the top 48 players in the world. We earn our place in the majors and if they want to see real competition, they have to have the top players.”

So, what will the major championships do? 

We will look to Augusta National first. If the allegations in a lawsuit filed by LIV players earlier this month are true, Augusta National has not taken the rise of LIV lightly; the suit alleges that club representatives “threatened to disinvite players” from the 2022 Masters if they joined LIV. Publicly, though, club chairman Fred Ridley has shown no such aggression. In his Masters press conference in April, he said, “our mission is always to act in the best interests of the game in whatever form that may take. I think that golf’s in a good place right now.” Ridley certainly wants the best field possible at the Masters next year. He has a little more than 200 days to reach a conclusion on that front. 

Following him will be Seth Waugh, the CEO of the PGA of America, who has publicly decried LIV’s shaking up the pro golf ecosystem. A handful of LIV golfers are qualified for the PGA Championship, but not many. And playing their way into that event is not as straightforward because it doesn’t offer sectional qualifying like the U.S. and British Opens.

The heads of both the USGA and R&A have loosely mentioned that qualification exemptions can be altered for their majors, but will they actually do it? They’ll have multiple majors and many months ahead of them. Coincidentally, the European Ryder Cup team just announced an altered qualification process for 2023. Change is clearly possible, but moves these days are analyzed both in fairness and legality.

Of course, clarity could arrive jointly. Many of the people who make up the the Official World Golf Ranking board of governors are representatives of the same bodies listed above. A decision about those ranking points is what everyone hopes to hear, LIV golfers and fans alike. The clock is ticking.

Sean Zak Editor

Zak is a writer at GOLF Magazine and just finished a book about the summer he spent in St. Andrews.

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