It’s a question we all are asking: What will Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters do about LIV Golf? Only club chairman Fred Ridley can answer it, but we’ve all speculated what the options might be.
A ban seems very unlikely. As of now, banning LIV players from the Masters would mean excluding five former champions with lifetime exemptions: Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio García, Charl Schwartzel and Patrick Reed. That number of green-jacket winners accepting the Saudi money may potentially grow even longer. Kicking them out would diminish the Masters and spoil its sacred traditions such as the Champions Dinner.
So what can Augusta National possibly do to deter players from abandoning the PGA and DP World tours for the obscene signing bonuses and prize pool of the LIV Golf series of limited-field, 54-hole, no-cut exhibition events?
With the strategic alliance between the PGA and DP World Tours strengthened and united against the LIV incursion, here are a few options Augusta might try to encourage players to remain or aspire to play on the established competitive tours around the world.
Perhaps more than you think and in more subtle ways one would come to expect from the folks in Augusta. Tinkering with the qualification methods would be the easiest and most likely route the club might take.
Since the very beginning, the Masters has always jiggered its qualifications. It’s a tradition as common as the changes it’s made to keep its golf course up to date. It’s added world rankings as the main equation. Taken away money list entries in favor of tour points systems. Taken away and given back automatic entries to PGA Tour winners. Reduced spots given for some amateur standards – such as U.S. Amateur quarterfinalists as well as Walker Cup and Eisenhower Trophy participants – while adding other amateur avenues such as the Asia-Pacific, Latin America and Mid-Amateur winners.
Masters qualifications are never something to be taken for granted – the USGA still hedges by saying that “by tradition” its amateur champion and runner-up are “likely” invited to the next year’s tournament, provided they remain amateurs.
A few surgical tweaks could have a major impact on deterring defections to LIV Golf.
With the strategic alliance between the PGA and DP World Tours strengthened and united against the LIV incursion, here are a few options Augusta might try to encourage players to remain or aspire to play on the established competitive tours around the world:
Change the deadline for Official World Golf Ranking top-50 qualifiers. Instead of having two top-50 qualifying deadlines, including the rather nonsensical end-of-year target when most top players are taking time off, have only one top-50 cutoff date – after the Players Championship in March to place a premium on the early months of the PGA and DP World tours and a flagship non-major. Having this take effect immediately would provide 11 more weeks for LIV players to slip in the ranks while not collecting any official OWGR points.
Offer exemptions to the top 10 players on the DP World Tour in the final Race to Dubai standings. This would be a critical nod to the PGA Tour’s strategic ally, comparable to exemptions currently earned by the final 30 players who reach the Tour Championship while providing valuable incentive and opportunity for members remaining loyal to the established European circuit.
Offer exemptions to the top player on the season-ending Order of Merit on the Japan Tour, Sunshine Tour and PGA Tour of Australasia. Like current amateur exemptions, this would be provisional that they remain members in good standing of their home tours or graduate to another established world tour. (The Asian Tour made its bed with LIV, so it has greenbacks to look forward to instead of green jackets.)
Treat the Players Championship like a major. Whether or not it ever gets official major status, the Players deserves respect for its strength of field. Increase the exemption for winning the Players to five years and offer one-year exemptions to the top four finishers and ties as they do for the other three major championships.
Offer a three-year exemption to winners of the flagship BMW PGA Championship. This mirrors the current standard for the Players. It also comes with a provision that winners remain members in good standing of the DP World or PGA tours.
Expand automatic exemptions for PGA Tour winners to all of its regular season and playoff events. Once again, it’s provided they remain members in good standing of the tour. (Considering the PGA Tour will soon go back to a tighter calendar-year schedule, this should not place an undue burden on Masters field size.)
Offer exemption to NCAA individual champion. This would be a long-overdue nod to top collegians (whom LIV seems intent on pursuing) and would require the winner, as with all other exempt amateur players, to remain an amateur through the Masters.
How different would this year’s Masters field have been with these qualifications in place a year ago? The overall field size, which was 90, would have grown only by five. Nine more players would have qualified for the field (Cameron Tringale, Nicolai Højgaard, Anirban Lahiri, Ryan Brehm, Chad Ramey, Chan Kim, Shaun Norris, Jediah Morgan and Turk Pettit); four players would not have qualified via top 50 (Lee Westwood, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Mackenzie Hughes and Takumi Kanaya); and one player (Min Woo Lee) would have qualified via the Race to Dubai standings instead of end-of-year top 50.
No kid has ever grown up dreaming about making the putt at Centurion Club to win the big LIV check, but they’ve all dreamed about Augusta and the green jacket as well as the other major championships.
That’s not a huge difference, but here’s the key point. Had LIV Golf existed a year ago, three of those new qualifiers (Norris, Morgan and Pettit) would have had a choice to make: sign with LIV or make a Masters debut? Maybe they all take the money and run anyway, or maybe one or more of them realizes what they have to lose in the bargain and decides to stay the course and experience competing at Augusta.
No kid has ever grown up dreaming about making the putt at Centurion Club to win the big LIV check, but they’ve all dreamed about Augusta and the green jacket as well as the other major championships. Those avenues to the Masters will gradually dry up and might never be available to them by taking the LIV route out.
It’s a considerable carrot in the established realm of championship golf – a valued trump card Augusta National can utilize to potentially hold the line against the traditions of the game being traded to the highest bidder.
While tour bosses Jay Monahan and Keith Pelley do what they can to stave off defections, the Masters has the chops to provide a significant boost to the cause. How they choose to use that power remains to be seen.
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