Surprise Masters announcement revealing for what it omitted

Jon Rahm talks with Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club Fred Ridley during the Golden Bear Pro-Am prior to the Memorial Tournament

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley with Jon Rahm in May 2023.

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Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley is a legacy guy.

We know this not only because he leads a tradition-rich club that dates to 1932 but also because of the pride he takes in his place of work. Ridley, who is 71, practices law out of the Tampa office of Foley & Lardner, which was founded in Milwaukee in 1842 when fewer than 10,000 residents populated the city and the streets were still unpaved; in the more than 180 years since, Foley & Lardner has grown into one of the country’s powerhouse law firms with more than two-dozen offices, A-list clientele and $1 billion in gross annual revenues.

His firm’s centuries-long expansion from its humble roots means something to Ridley. When addressing the media at last year’s Masters, he called working for Foley & Lardner a “privilege,” adding, “we exist today because of many generations of lawyers who thought it was important to leave our organization better than they found it.”

Ridley wasn’t plugging his employer for brownie points. He was making a larger point about the chasm in men’s professional golf that had been created by a wave of elite players signing with the upstart, cash-rich LIV Golf tour. In Ridley’s eyes, those pros were in effect choosing loot over legacy, and ultimately that was not a good thing for the game at large. “These players were taking the platform that had been given to them — that they rightly had earned success on, by the way — and moving to another opportunity, perhaps not thinking about who might come behind them,” Ridley said.

The chairman was echoing comments that he had made in a statement in late 2022, when he said of players defecting to LIV, “We are disappointed in these developments.”    

Surely, then, Ridley could not have been thrilled by LIV’s biggest coup of 2023: its signing of reigning green-jacket holder, Jon Rahm. Rahm’s LIV leap means come April, for the first time in the Saudi-financed league’s short history, one of its representatives will sit shoulder to shoulder next to Ridley at the storied Champions Dinner on Tuesday evening of Masters week. Much of the frostiness and awkwardness between LIV and PGA Tour players (or perceived frostiness and awkwardness) has dissipated since the 2023 Masters, but still, having Rahm at the head of the Champions Dinner table is symbolism that won’t be lost on LIV brass, including golf-lover Yasir Al-Rumayyan, the governor of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which underwrites LIV.  

When Ridley meets with the press at the 2024 Masters, he no doubt will be asked for his latest thoughts on LIV and the continued upheaval and uncertainty in the pro game. But in the meantime, a Wednesday announcement from Augusta National gave us some insight into Ridley and his club’s view of LIV’s current place in the game.

The release began:

“Fred Ridley, Chairman of Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters Tournament, announced today that Denmark’s Thorbjørn Olesen, Japan’s Ryo Hisatsune and Chile’s Joaquin Niemann have accepted invitations to compete in the 2024 Masters. 

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“The Masters Tournament has a long-standing tradition of inviting leading international players who are not otherwise qualified,” Ridley said. “Today’s announcement represents the Tournament’s continued commitment towards developing interest in the game of golf across the world. We look forward to welcoming each player to Augusta National this spring.”

The most eye-catching of the invitees was Neimann, a supremely talented 25-year-old who has been on LIV’s payroll since 2022. Earlier this month, Niemann picked up his first LIV title, in Mayakoba, edging out 2017 Masters champion Sergio Garcia in a sudden-death playoff. The win earned Niemann $4 million but garnered nary a passing mention in Augusta National’s Wednesday announcement.     

Here’s how the club outlined Neimann’s recent accomplishments:

“Niemann, 25, is set to appear in his fifth Masters, where he has made the cut in three of his first four Tournaments, including a career-best T-16 in 2023. He has top-five finishes in each of his three DP World Tour starts this season, including winning the Australian Open in a playoff last December. Niemann’s first Masters came in 2018 while he was the reigning Latin America Amateur champion and the No. 1 ranked amateur in the world.”

That Augusta National did not acknowledge Neimann’s LIV win or LIV affiliation suggests that the club does not see the tour as a legitimate competitive entity. (An Augusta National spokesperson did not immediately respond to a query about the omission, but the club has a longstanding policy of not commenting on club matters.) The Official World Golf Ranking, on which Augusta National executive director Will Jones has a board seat, has been making this case for some time, of course, but Augusta’s invitee announcement was yet another reminder that LIV still has a way to go to earn credibility from the establishment.       

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Could that day come? It could, and soon. As the PGA Tour and LIV continue to negotiate a potential path forward together, it’s possible they land on a pact that ensures LIV’s top players are not boxed out of the majors. The Masters can invite anyone it pleases to its tournament — witness Niemann, Olesen and Hisatsune — but the longer LIV remains a rogue tour with no OWGR accreditation, the more difficult Augusta’s decision-making about its field composition will become. Take, for example, Talor Gooch, who won three LIV titles in 2023 but because he has descended to 427th in the world (as of this week) is miles away from a Masters auto-bid. Should Gooch’s fine play, albeit on what was then a 48-player tour, have earned him a 2024 Masters invite? Arguably. But this year, no such invitation came.

Ridley knows the competitive landscape is changing fast, which is why he chooses his words with such lawyerly care.  

Asked in October, at the Asia Pacific Amateur Championship, in Australia, about whether he and Augusta National might be open to future revisions to Masters qualification routes, Ridley said: “If you look back over the history of the Masters tournament, and the qualifications that existed, we have changed those qualifications numerous times, dozens of times. We look at those every year. We don’t make changes every year, but we do look at them under the current circumstances. As you’ll recall last year, there was some speculation as to whether or not we would invite LIV golfers. We stayed true to our qualification criteria. We invited everyone who was eligible.”

Ridley also was asked whether he felt if it was unfair that some of LIV’s top players are losing access to the majors because of their plummeting world rankings.

“They made decisions based on what they thought was in the best interests of their golf careers,” Ridley said. “Our invitation criteria does say that we reserve the right to issue special exemptions to international players, [and] we did issue a special exemption to an amateur and NCAA champion last year [Gordon Sargent]. So, we’re always looking at that. But these decisions have been made and will have to do with what’s in the best interest of the Masters.”

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