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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A new twist for the tradition-bound Masters: the LIV Golf era

“The history of this tournament, the history of the majors, is about bringing the best players together, and it really needs to rise above any type of golf ecosystem disruption,” Phil Mickelson said last month.

By Alan Blinder

The mystery started in earnest last spring and lasted until autumn’s twilight. But Phil Mickelson — among the most famous frontmen for LIV Golf, the league bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund — insists that he believed he would be allowed to play the 2023 Masters Tournament, which opened Thursday in Augusta, Georgia.

Never mind any discomfort, or how on-course rivalries had transformed into long-distance furies tinged by politics, power, pride and money. No, Mickelson reasoned, tradition would prevail at Augusta National Golf Club, surely among sports’ safest wagers.

“The history of this tournament, the history of the majors, is about bringing the best players together, and it really needs to rise above any type of golf ecosystem disruption,” Mickelson, a three-time Masters winner, said in an interview last month.

“I wasn’t really worried,” said Mickelson, who spent the 2022 Masters in a self-imposed sporting exile after he effectively downplayed Saudi Arabia’s human rights abuses. But, he allowed, “there was talk” of exclusion from one of golf’s most revered events.

Augusta National extinguished the talk on Dec. 20: If a golfer qualified for the Masters through one of its familiar pathways, like being a past champion, his 2023 invitation would be in the mail.

The club’s choice will infuse its grounds through at least Sunday, when the tournament is scheduled to conclude, weather permitting. All of the customary narratives that surround a major tournament are bubbling: Will Scottie Scheffler become the first repeat winner in more than two decades? Might Rory McIlroy finally complete the career Grand Slam? Can Jon Rahm regain his dominant winter form? And, as ever, what will Tiger Woods do?

But an undercurrent of ambition, curiosity and gentility-cloaked discord is present, too.

For LIV, the competition will be a breakthrough if one of its players dons the winner’s green jacket. For the PGA Tour, the Masters is an opportunity to showcase that its 72-hole approach to an ancient game is still king. And for Augusta National, the tournament is an opportunity to depict itself as skeptically above golf’s chaotic fray.

“At the Champions Dinner, I would not have known that anything was going on in the world of professional golf other than the norm,” Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chair, said Wednesday, the day after the traditional gathering of past Masters winners.

He added: “So I think, and I’m hopeful, that this week might get people thinking in a little bit different direction and things will change.”

It was virtually certain that this week would not descend into open brawling, and it has not. Some players have complained about a news media hyperfocus on any potential tensions — and acknowledged that they, too, had wondered about the vibe and contemplated the stakes for their tours.

Cameron Smith, at No. 6 the highest-ranked LIV player, said PGA Tour players had greeted him with hugs and handshakes. Asked what, exactly, he had anticipated, he replied: “I wasn’t really sure, to be honest.”

He seemed more certain that LIV could use a strong showing on the leaderboards around Augusta National’s hallowed stage.

“I think it’s just important for LIV guys to be up there because I think we need to be up there,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of chatter about these guys don’t play real golf; these guys don’t play real golf courses. For sure, I’ll be the first one to say the fields aren’t as strong. I’m the first one to say that, but we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf.”

Rory McIlroy, seemingly approaching sainthood in the eyes of PGA Tour executives for his steadfast defense of their circuit, said the Masters was “way bigger” than golf’s big spat and that he relished the opportunity to go up against 18 LIV players who are among the world’s finest golfers. Being around them again, he suggested, can build rapport, though he acknowledged restored proximity was not a guarantee of perpetual harmony.

“It’s a very nuanced situation and there’s different dynamics,” McIlroy said. Referring to Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, the LIV stars and major winners, he added: “You know, it’s OK to get on with Brooks and D.J. and maybe not get on with some other guys that went to LIV, right?”

For its part, Augusta National, whose private membership roster is believed to include at least two former secretaries of state, has sought to tamp down theatrics.

Groupings for Thursday and Friday were and are about the most anodyne possible, at least in the PGA Tour vs. LIV context. Woods and Bryson DeChambeau, who recently suggested that Woods had all but excommunicated him, will not have a reunion at the first tee. Fred Couples, a PGA Tour loyalist who called LIV’s Sergio Garcia a “clown” and Mickelson a “nutbag,” is scheduled to play alongside Russell Henley and Alex Noren. McIlroy is grouped with Sam Burns and Tom Kim.

And Ridley said that Augusta National had not invited Greg Norman, the LIV commissioner, to the club, where the leaders of the PGA Tour and DP World Tour have held court in recent days.

“The primary issue and the driver there is that I want the focus this week to be on the Masters competition,” Ridley said. He said he believed Norman had attended the tournament twice in the last decade, once as a radio commentator.

Ridley also sidestepped a query about whether Augusta National had become complicit in “sportswashing” Saudi Arabia’s image.

“I certainly have a general understanding of the term,” Ridley said. “I think, you know, it’s for others to decide exactly what that means. These were personal decisions of these players, which I, you know, at a high level, don’t necessarily agree with.”

With tournament play scheduled to begin Thursday morning, the week’s emphasis was rapidly shifting toward the competition itself. The event’s American television broadcasters appeared unlikely to dwell on off-course subjects unless they must.

“We’re not going to put our heads in the sand,” said Sean McManus, the chair of CBS Sports, which will broadcast the third and fourth rounds on Saturday and Sunday. “Having said that, unless it really affects the story that’s taking place on the golf course, we’re not going to go out of our way to cover it, and I’m not sure there’s anything that we could add to the story.”

ESPN, which is airing the tournament’s first two rounds, has suggested it is even less interested in golf’s geopolitical soap opera. Curtis Strange, the two-time U.S. Open champion who is now a commentator, said he didn’t “see us mentioning the Roman numerals at all.”

“We have to give respect to the Masters Tournament,” he said. “The only way I could ever see anything coming up — and not even mentioning LIV — but some of these players haven’t played a lot of competitive golf. So how sharp can they be?”

LIV golfers have said that they will be prepared for the rigors of the Masters, even though they have been playing 54-hole events, instead of 72, at courses that some doubt will have them ready for Augusta’s challenges.

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