The Masters and LIV Golf
Masters 2023: What you need to know about LIV Golf and Augusta National
Patrick Reed won the 2018 Masters and was congratulated by Sergio Garcia, the previous year's champion.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — This time last year, Augusta National and Masters Chairman Fred Ridley took a neutral stance against the prospect of a Saudi-led golf league, a concept that seemed in doubt after Phil Mickelson seemingly torpedoed the endeavor with his bombastic comments. “Our mission is to always act in the best interest of the game in whatever form that may take,” Ridley said at the 2022 Masters. “I think that golf is in a good place right now. There’s more participation, the purses on the professional tours are the highest they’ve ever been. We’ve been pretty clear in our believe that the world tours have done a great job in promoting the game over the years. Beyond that, there’s so much that we don’t know about what might happen or what could happen, I can’t say much more beyond that.”
But a Saudi league is no longer a concept but something very, very concrete that has torn the professional fabric of men’s golf in two. The sport’s civil war has touched nearly all aspects of the game, and that includes Augusta National. To catch you up to speed, here is what you need to know about the connection between the Masters and LIV Golf.
Are LIV Golf members allowed to play in the Masters?
Though the PGA Tour considers the Masters an official event, the tour has no jurisdiction over the field or how the tournament is run, allowing those banned by the tour to play at Augusta National.
How many LIV players are in the 2023 Masters field?
A total of 18: Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Bubba Watson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Bryson DeChambeau, Cameron Smith, Mito Peirera, Joaquin Niemann, Abe Ancer, Thomas Pieters, Harold Varner III, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, and Louis Oosthuizen. Only Smith, the reigning Open champion, is list on the pre-tournament interview schedule.
So Augusta National is OK with LIV Golf?
Wouldn’t go that far. In a statement last December, Ridley wrote, “Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it.”
However, while Ridley said he was “disappointed” in these developments, “our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers.”
“Therefore, as invitations are sent this week, we will invite those eligible under our current criteria to compete in the 2023 Masters Tournament,” Ridley said.
Can LIV Golf members compete in the Masters in perpetuity?
Not quite. Ridley added a caveat to this statement, writing, “As we have said in the past, we look at every aspect of the tournament each year, and any modifications or changes to invitation criteria for future tournaments will be announced in April.” Possible alterations to the field’s exemption categories is expected to be one of the areas addressed by Ridley during his annual pre-Masters press conference on Wednesday.
How would LIV Golf members be excluded from future Masters?
There are a few routes. The first would be to stick with the current criteria, which—assuming LIV Golf fails to receive accreditation from the Official World Golf Ranking—would eliminate roughly half the LIV Golf competitors from the field. In place of the OWGR exemptions, the Masters could use the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup rankings, the DP World Tour Race to Dubai standings and other money/point lists for respective tours around the world.
The second could be a closer alignment with the PGA Tour. The Masters could announce it will mirror the tour’s criteria for field eligibility, meaning those suspended by the tour would be banned from competing in the Masters. This option would allow the Masters to ban previous Masters winners—such as Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson— from the tournament should the club decide to do so. The third is, well, the club could just not invite LIV Golf members to compete because the Masters is an invitational, and the club is beholden only to itself. However, that would be extreme, given the circumstances.
Ridley and Augusta National were named in the antitrust lawsuit brought by Mickelson and other LIV members against the PGA Tour, with LIV players claiming the club tried to persuade golfers not to join the Saudi-backed circuit. “Augusta National, the promoter of The Masters, has taken multiple actions to indicate its alignment with the PGA Tour, thus seeding doubt among top professional golfers whether they would be banned from future Masters Tournaments," the lawsuit reads. "As an initial matter, the links between the PGA Tour and Augusta National run deep. The actions by Augusta National indicate that the PGA Tour has used these channels to pressure Augusta National to do its bidding. For example, in February, 2022 Augusta National representatives threatened to disinvite players from The Masters if they joined LIV Golf.”
The complaint says that the PGA Tour urged Augusta National officials to attend a PGA Tour Advisory Council meeting in May, shortly after the formal launch of the LIV Golf Invitational Series. The suit says they did attend and “they informed the golfers in attendance that the PGA Tour and Augusta National had agreed to work together to address LIV Golf. As described above, the threat of exclusion from the Masters (and the other Majors) is a powerful weapon in the Tour’s arsenal to deter players from joining LIV Golf.”
The claim goes further with this reference to behind-the-scenes actions from Ridley: “In addition, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley personally instructed a number of participants in the 2022 Masters not to play in the LIV Golf Invitational Series. Plainly, these threats to top players served no beneficial purpose, as they would only serve to weaken the field in the Masters.” The suit says that Ridley declined a request from LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman to meet and formally discuss the launch of the series and its business model. He also, according to the claim, called Asian Tour CEO Cho Minn Thant along with R&A Chief Executive Martin Slumbers “to threaten consequences relating to the Asian Tour’s position in the current ‘ecosystem’ if the Asian Tour continued to support LIV Golf and its LIV Golf Invitational Series.”
Wouldn’t this make Augusta National want to ban LIV Golf members?
Possibly, except Augusta National is also involved in an antitrust probe by the Department of Justice.
According to a Wall Street Journal report last October, the antitrust investigation—initially spurred by LIV Golf accusations against the tour—roped in golf’s other governing bodies and entities into the probe. In July, players’ agents received inquiries from the DOJ’s antitrust division regarding laws about participating in non-tour events and the tour’s actions related to LIV. The tour has countersued LIV, asserting that the case is not about unfair competition—“if anyone is competing unfairly, it is LIV, not the tour”—and accuses the LIV-backed lawsuit as a “cynical effort to avoid competition and to freeride off of the tour’s investment in the development of professional golf.”
LIV Golf has also accused the club and its members from attempting to dissuade the DOJ from its investigation. However, the DOJ’s investigation has itself been under scrutiny, with members of Congress questioning why the department has inserted itself into the matter. Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas) has pushed the DOJ to investigate if LIV violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act for its ties to the Saudi government.
So, again, why is LIV Golf invited?
Given the lawsuit and antitrust probe, disinviting LIV Golf members could put the club in a tough spot on both of those fronts.
Given the shots Fred Couples has dished out at Mickelson and other LIV Golf members, the Champions Dinner could be frosty. And though the U.S. Open and Open Championship were conducted following LIV Golf’s launch, the Masters will be the first major since the inception of the lawsuit, which could lead to some awkwardness in the locker room.