Sport

GOLF MAJORS

Augusta sets the stage to play off the PGA Tour against breakaway LIV Golf

Augusta sets the stage to play off the PGA Tour against breakaway LIV Golf
Scottie Scheffler celebrates after being awarded the Green Jacket after winning the Masters at Augusta National Golf Club on 10 April, 2022 in Augusta, Georgia. (Photo: Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

The 2023 Masters tournament from 6 to 9 April is the first since the establishment of the breakaway series, and the subplots are adding extra excitement.

As tradition dictates at the Masters, the season’s first men’s major, the defending champion at Augusta in Georgia hosts a dinner for past champions with a menu of his choice.

World No 1 Scottie Scheffler is this year’s host after his breakthrough 2022 triumph to win his maiden major. He’ll be serving dishes close to his southern Texas roots: cheeseburger sliders and firecracker shrimp as starters, followed by warm tortilla soup garnished with avocado, sour cream, coriander and lime.

A choice of Texas ribeye or blackened redfish is offered as a main, with a host of sides including mac and cheese and fries.

Dessert is a gooey chocolate chip cookie served on a warm skillet with milk-and-cookie ice cream.

There will be wine and conversation, but there might also be some tension in the air – because at the normally convivial Georgia table will be six members of the breakaway LIV Golf Tour.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Major win cements Scottie Scheffler as the world’s best golfer

Phil Mickelson with four green jackets is the most prominent LIV rebel, and two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson is a close second. Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia are players everyone loves to hate and the most likely pair to spark an incident, while South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel and America’s Dustin Johnson are the quieter of the sextet of LIV Masters champions in the field.

Patrick Reed, the 2018 champion, is one of 18 LIV Golf “rebels” in the field. (Photo: Jonathan Ferrey/LIV Golf via Getty Images)

Reed has already fired a small salvo. “Would I like to have LIV be up at the top? Of course [I would],” he said this week.

Although the 2018 champion tried to play down the PGA Tour vs LIV rivalry, his openly stating that he wants a LIV player to win the 2023 tournament shows that there is some needle. And why wouldn’t there be?

LIV, which is bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, and the PGA Tour have been in litigation since several LIV players filed federal antitrust lawsuits in August last year.

LIV players are banned on the regular PGA Tour and they can’t earn World Golf ranking points. But they are not barred from the majors – yet.

Charl Schwartzel of South Africa at the green jacket presentation after his two-stroke victory at the 2011 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on 10 April, 2011 in Augusta, Georgia. He plays in the LIV Golf Invitational Series. (Photo: Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

A potentially challenging mix

There is always excitement about the Masters because it marks the start of a frantic three months featuring four majors. But this year there is also some animosity in the air, although players have tried to suppress it.

Even the tournament’s American broadcaster, CBS, has addressed the “LIV situation”. CBS has broadcast the tournament for 68 consecutive years and will show more than 100 hours of coverage from 6 to 9 April. It will toe the Masters line.

Read more in Daily Maverick: LIV Invitational Series shook the professional golf world to its roots in 2022

At the best of times, commentators at the Masters are restricted in the language they must use. This year they might have to tread even more carefully.

“Fans” or “spectators” must be called “patrons”, and the front and back nines are the “first” and “second” nine, according to a decree from the Masters committee.

Obviously the Masters is a popular television event and it makes the broadcaster a lot of money, which is why the guidelines are tolerated. Augusta National Golf Club only sells its broadcast on a one-year deal, keeping CBS in line.

The par-five 13th hole has been significantly lengthened and the broadcasters have some new innovations for the TV audience. But the real issue will be acknowledging LIV while trying not to talk about it too much.

In an unusual move, CBS hosted a media conference to discuss its broadcasting approach because of the LIV situation. In all, there are 18 LIV golfers in the field, with Cameron Smith, Johnson, Reed, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau among legitimate LIV contenders for the title.

“We’re not gonna cover up or hide anything,” said CBS Sports chairperson Sean McManus. “[Our] job is to cover the golf tournament. We’re not gonna show any ­different treatment for the golfers who have played on the LIV tour than we do the other golfers.

“And if there’s a pertinent point or something that we need to – or we feel that we should – bring up in our coverage on Saturday and Sunday, or on our other coverage throughout the week, you know, we’re not gonna put our heads in the sand.

“Having said that, unless it really affects the story that’s taking place on the golf course, we’re not gonna go out of our way to cover it. I’m not sure there’s anything that we could add to the story as it already exists. We’ll cover it as is suitable.”

To add to the potential conflict, a 9/11 Families United group, formed after the 2001 terrorist attacks on the US, will stage a protest at Augusta objecting to the inclusion of LIV players. The group argues that Saudi Arabia is using sportswashing vehicles such as LIV Golf to detract from “what they did, including their role in 9/11”.

PGA Tour officials will be hoping that anyone but a LIV player wins. In defending Masters champion Scottie Scheffler they have as close to a sure thing as there is in golf. (Photo: Kevin C Cox/Getty Images)

What about the golf?

PGA Tour officials will no doubt be hoping that anyone but a LIV player wins, and in Scheffler they have as close to a sure thing as there is in golf. The amiable Texan won the unofficial “fifth major”, the Players Championship, in March and made the semifinals of the WGC Match Play last week.

He loves Augusta and comes into the Masters in form, so what’s not to like.

Similarly, world No 2 and No 3, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, have both been in great form in 2023 and, most vitally, been very active.

World No 2 Rory McIlroy is in hot form this season. (Photo: Caroline Brehman/EPA-EFE)

McIlroy, who is still in search of a green jacket to complete the full set of majors, has won three times this season and finished in the top four nine times in his last 12 starts. That kind of consistency is not common at the top end of the game.

He also finished runner-up to Scheffler at Augusta in 2022, and beat him for third place at last week’s WGC Match Play.

“I’m really bullish on where my game is, especially knowing what’s around the corner,” McIlroy said afterwards. “I’ll have a day off, but I’m going to maybe go up to a little place in Augusta for a day and mess around.

“I was already up there last week and I don’t think there’s any harm in going up again. I feel really good. I’m a lot more confident going into Augusta than I was last year, and last year was my best-ever finish.

“I’m excited about how things are now compared to this time a couple of weeks ago,” he said.

“I drove the ball a lot better this week and I felt pretty good with the putter, better each day, and holed some nice putts.

“Augusta has become more of a driving course as the years have gone on … but approach play is still the big key at Augusta and I felt like I hit my irons and wedges well this week. I don’t think anything is in bad shape, so I’ll just keep it ticking over and work on the shots that I need.”

On average, the top players on the PGA Tour have played twice as many rounds as the LIV players, who have fewer tournaments to compete in. Theirs are also 54 holes, compared with the PGA’s 72 holes.

Like all sports, the more you play the better your chances. That’s not to say a LIV golfer couldn’t win at Augusta, but it makes it less likely – which is probably what the PGA Tour is quietly rooting for. DM168

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R25.

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