After LIV Golf’s most recent player coup, it feels like the battle lines are starting to settle in for the long haul.
The addition of World No. 2 Cameron Smith, rising star Joaquin Niemann, Harold Varner III, Marc Leishman, Anirban Lahiri and Cameron Tringale to LIV’s ranks this week brings the total number of PGA Tour players defecting to the upstart league to 33. Mito Pereira is also rumored to join LIV soon, which would make the number 34.
While anything can happen over the next few months, there are few major players left on the PGA Tour who are rumored to be considering making the jump. So when the 2023 Masters at Augusta National rolls around in April, the LIV roster should look much the same as it does now.
The question then is: how many of them, if any, will actually tee it up in the first major of the year?
While the PGA Tour has banned any and all players who have joined LIV, the four major championships are a different story. Since the majors are run by different organizations — Augusta National (Masters), the PGA of America (PGA Championship), the USGA (U.S. Open) and the R&A (Open Championship) — the Tour bans don’t apply.
As LIV got underway this past year, the majors that needed to make a decision adopted essentially the same policy: any players who qualified to play under existing standards would be allowed to play in 2022.
And play they did, including Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and several other LIV early-adopters.
However, LIV didn’t make any player announcements until after the Masters, so Augusta never had to make such a decision. For Augusta, that will come next year. In fact, no one knows yet whether any or all four organizations will ban LIV pros or let them play going forward in 2023.
Two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson is among the more accomplished players who has left the PGA Tour for LIV, though he hasn’t hit a shot in a LIV event. Watson, who is recovering from knee surgery, will play the role of team captain at the LIV tournament in Boston this week.
When asked about a possible major ban on Wednesday at a press conference for the event, Watson admitted he was worried about the potential of missing the Masters.
“For me, it’s a weird situation, being a Masters Champion…” Watson said on Wednesday. “Augusta, right now, we can play in it, and I’m hoping, and praying, that they make the right decisions and past champions and people, we can all start playing.”
But Watson went on to reveal that he also told his children, “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.”
Which brings us to the 2023 Masters. In addition to being the biggest and most-watched men’s major, the Masters is also the first on the calendar, running April 6-9.
While reports have alleged that Augusta sided strongly with the PGA Tour behind the scenes, there has been no official talk of a LIV ban yet, so let’s take a look at which LIV golfers have technically already earned their spots in the field.
There are a few standard Masters qualification criteria that apply to LIV pros: past Masters champions, all players who finished in the top 12 at the 2022 Masters, players who finished top 4 in the other three majors in 2022, players who won a PGA Tour event since the 2022 Masters, players who qualified for the 2022 Tour Championship, and players within the Top 50 in the Official World Golf Ranking (the top 50 in the OWGR at the end of 2022, plus the top 50 published during the week prior to the 2023 Masters get in).
Among the LIV ranks are six past Masters winners: Watson, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel. Recent LIV addition Smith qualifies on numerous grounds (2022 Open champion, 2022 Players champion, T3 at the 2022 Masters, the list goes on). Pereira finished T3 at the PGA, which normally would earn him a spot, and Niemann qualified for the Tour Championship.
Beyond those nine, question marks remain. No LIV player has won a PGA Tour event since Niemann at the Genesis Invitational in February, which does not count for the 2023 Masters.
So the final criteria, one very much up in the air, is Top 50 in the Official World Golf ranking. Currently, eight LIV pros who aren’t otherwise qualified for the Masters find themselves still within the Top 50, including Abraham Ancer (24), Brooks Koepka (26), Louis Oosthuizen (31), Kevin Na (34), Bryson DeChambeau (37), Jason Kokrak (38), Talor Gooch (45) and Varner III (46).
If the 2023 Masters were happening this week, all of these players would have earned a tee time. But the Masters doesn’t start for seven months. With LIV Golf tournaments providing no world ranking points to competitors, all of these players will drop precipitously in the ranking as time goes on, with some of them likely falling out of the Top 50 by year’s end.
But ignoring that fact, the total count of LIV pros qualified for the Masters right now is 17. That would represent a significant portion of the small field at Augusta, which is traditionally around 90 players.
Of course, the biggest determining factor on whether these 17 players will have a chance to fight for a green jacket in April is what Augusta National decides to do. As is often the case, the storied club finds itself in a powerful position heading into 2023, and we’ll have to wait and see if they do end up enforcing a ban on LIV players much like the PGA Tour has.
Whatever they decide to do, there’s a good chance the other three majors follow their lead.