As the war between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf has raged on, more than a few observers have suggested that the tours might find some common ground if only their representatives would sit down together and break bread. You know, talk it out.
As it happens, just such an opportunity will avail itself on the first Tuesday evening of April in Augusta, Ga.
Just don’t bank on any peace accords being brokered there.
We speak, of course, of the Masters Champions Dinner, where for the first time since some of the game’s best players — including a half-dozen green jacket winners — signed lucrative, career-altering deals with a Saudi-financed golf league, those defectors will sit shoulder to shoulder with many of the same players who feel betrayed by them. If you’re handicapping the gathering at home, it seems unlikely that a food fight will break out, or that Hideki will decline to pass the salt and pepper to Sergio, or that the LIVers will be handed separate bills, but almost undoubtedly some degree of awkwardness will be palpable in the room. After all the mudslinging and tee-tossing and legal threats, how could there not be signs of strain?
“One thing I keep going back to, and it’s probably only funny to me,” Jon Rahm, who hasn’t won a Masters, said at the Tournament of Champions in January, “I think the Masters Champions Dinner’s going to be a little tense compared to how it’s been in the past.”
Not all invitees agree with that assessment — “There will not be any tension from me, and besides I still have a great relationship with all my fellow Masters champions,” Dustin Johnson said earlier this month — but then again not all players are as carefree and nonconfrontational as DJ.
“Hey, as long as I’m in the Champions Dinner, I’m fine,” Bubba Watson said a couple of weeks ago from the Saudi International, before referencing defending Masters champion and dinner host Scottie Scheffler. “I’ll sit wherever he tells me. It’s fine. As long as I’m allowed back, I’ll sit wherever he wants me to. I’ll sit outside and just stare in the window.”
Rory McIlroy, who has emerged as the spiritual leader of Team Ponte Vedra, won’t be at the meal. (Lest you’ve forgotten, he hasn’t won a Masters.) But one of McIlroy’s closest allies will: five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods. Woods has not been as front and center as McIlroy has been in the LIV fight, but he has been unequivocal in his support of McIlroy (“He’s been exceptional,” Woods said Tuesday of McIlroy’s leadership) and the Tour, and also a key behind-the-scenes influencer in the reshaping of the Tour schedule.
Much of the reason why we don’t hear much from Woods these days is because he’s infrequently in front of a mic. His appearance at the Genesis Invitational in L.A. this week marks his first official PGA Tour start since the fall of 2020. On Tuesday, when Woods sat with the media, a reporter asked him what his demeanor will be like when he mixes with LIV players in Augusta.
“That’s a great question because I don’t know because I haven’t been around them,” Woods said. “Some of the players out here have. For instance, Rory [was] in Dubai with some of those players.”
McIlroy was more than with them at the Hero Dubai Desert Classic — he outplayed them, finishing birdie-birdie to edge LIV commit Patrick Reed by a stroke. McIlroy and Reed’s final-round duel came just a few days after McIlroy had ignored Reed on the range, which led to Reed lofting a tee in McIlroy’s direction.
“I don’t know what that reaction’s going to be,” Woods continued of the LIV-PGA Tour loyalist dynamic at Augusta. “I know that some of our friendships have certainly taken a different path, but we’ll see when all that transpires. That is still a couple months away.”
With LIV and the PGA Tour tied up in clashes now making their way through the judicial system, it seems unlikely that much will change by April. On Tuesday evening of Masters week, Reed will make his way up to the Founders Room on the second floor of the Augusta National clubhouse. So, too, it seems likely, will Phil Mickelson. And Sergio. And Charl. And DJ. And Bubba. Scheffler, who will sit at the head of the table flanked by the dinner’s resident host, two-time champion Ben Crenshaw, and Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley, will say a few words about what it means to be among such legendary company.
And then…well, who knows.
“The Champions Dinner is going to be obviously something that’s talked about,” Woods said. “We as a whole need to honor Scottie, Scottie’s the winner, it’s his dinner. So making sure that Scottie gets honored correctly but also realizing the nature of what has transpired and the people that have left, just where our situations are either legally, emotionally, there’s a lot there.”
And we haven’t even gotten to the golf yet.