Sport

AUGUSTA NATIONAL

The Masters 2024 brings golf’s top players together at a time when viewers are tuning out

The Masters 2024 brings golf’s top players together at a time when viewers are tuning out
Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy is concerned about golf's dwindling viewership figures. He will attempt to win his first green jacket at the 2024 Masters this week. (Photo: Brennan Asplen / Getty Images)

As golf’s elite men’s players descended on Augusta National for the 2024 Masters, it signalled a brief conjunction of the splintered sport.

The world’s best male players gathered for the 2024 Masters at Augusta National this week in a welcome boost for the beleaguered sport. It’s the first time since the 2023 Open Championship in July last year that the sport’s biggest names were competing together.

Since the establishment of the breakaway LIV Golf tour in 2022, the men’s professional game has been embroiled in an uncivil war, and it seems fans of the game are losing interest.

LIV golf is still seen as a glorified exhibition tour with 54-hole events and shotgun starts, while the PGA Tour has been watered down with the defection of so many high-profile players to LIV.

Since winning his first green jacket last April, defending Masters champion Jon Rahm has also defected to the breakaway LIV Golf tour, which is underpinned by the Saudi Public Investment Fund (PIF).

Spain’s Jon Rahm, who won the 2023 Masters at Augusta National GC, has since defected to LIV Golf, but will defend his title. (Photo: Andrew Redington / Getty Images)

While Rahm’s defection was a big moment for the sport, it was a ripple compared to the news midway through 2023 that the PGA Tour, previously the richest tour in professional golf, had agreed to merge with the PIF.

Although that news came as a shock, it was also supposed to be the end of the standoff. Yet nine months on, the status quo remains and the sport continues in a sort of professional limbo.

The merger has still not been completed despite an original 31 December 2023 deadline to have heads of agreement in place.

There is no doubt that in the splintered golf world, the stand-off between the two tours is hurting the game. 

Several reports out of the US have noted that regular PGA Tour events have seen a viewership drop-off of about 20%.

LIV’s viewership numbers are also still tiny compared to other major US sports such as American football and basketball.

Former world number one, Rory McIlroy, who was the most outspoken PGA player against LIV, noted at the Texas Open last week that the chasm in the game is hurting it commercially.

“I know this isn’t a be-all, end-all, but if you look at the TV ratings of the PGA Tour this year, they’re down 20% across the board,” McIlroy told the media in Texas.

“That’s a fifth. That’s big. I would say the numbers on LIV aren’t great either in terms of the people tuning in. I just think with the fighting and everything that’s gone on over the past couple years, people are just getting really fatigued of it and it’s turning people off men’s professional golf. That’s not a good thing for anyone.”

For the Saudis and the PIF, which has a war chest of $700-billion to play with, viewership doesn’t factor as a revenue driver. No amount of broadcast fees could come close to denting their cash reserves.

But the idea of professional sport is to create a product that attracts fans – either live or through screens. And right now, golf is shedding viewers.

McIlroy believes the final viewership figures of the 2024 major championships will provide a more accurate picture of the reasons for the ratings drop-off.

Because of its unique broadcasting arrangement with CBS, which has been in place for decades, plus its limited field and place in American folklore, the Masters’ viewership figures won’t accurately gauge the temperature of the ailing sport.

People, who might not otherwise watch golf, tune in to the Masters because it has become a spring tradition in the US.

“It’s going to be really interesting to see how the four major championships do, or even the three, because, put Augusta aside, I think that sort of lives in its own world,” said McIlroy.

“It will be really interesting to see how the major championship numbers fare compared to the other bigger events, because, if the numbers are better and you’ve got all the best players in the world playing, there’s an argument to say, ‘okay, we need to get this thing back together.’

“But on the flip side, if the numbers aren’t as good, it’s an argument to still say we need to put everyone back together because people are losing interest in the game even if they don’t want to tune in to the four major championships.”

Masters gather

But at the Masters, at least – which has always played by its own rules – past champions such as Rahm, Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson and Patrick Reed, who are now part of the LIV flock, are welcome on Augusta’s hallowed fairways.

LIV members are still suspended from regular PGA Tour events, but the four majors – which included the PGA Championship, the US Open and The Open, in addition to the Masters – have allowed LIV players to compete since the breakaway league was established.

Having some of the best players essentially locked out of the traditional 72-hole stroke play tournaments staged on the PGA Tour has diminished the sport to a degree.

Missing the likes of Rahm, 2022 Open Champion Cameron Smith, and the pulling power of Mickelson, has undermined PGA Tour events, regardless of how much spin claims the opposite.

Which is why the majors have become even more important in the current climate. It’s one of the few times the best players in the world are gathered in one place.

Until the merger is complete, golf’s four biggest tournaments will be the only tournaments where the world’s leading players will square off, regardless of the accreditation badge they carry with them.

Former Masters winner Scottie Scheffler is one of the form players going into Masters week. (Photo: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)

Going for green

Picking a winner this year is an almost impossible task, as it is most years, but 2022 champion Scottie Scheffler is in fine form, having won back-to-back tournaments recently, including the Players’ Championship.

Rahm, of course, is certain to be contending, while McIlroy is in search of a maiden Masters to complete the full set of winning all four majors. But you have to go back almost 10 years, to the Open Championship of 2014 at Hoylake, for McIlroy’s last major triumph.

“I think I can compete with anybody at any given time,” Rahm told The Guardian

“I am going to leave it at that. I think at my best I can take on anybody. But that’s what everybody should be thinking. I think Rory [McIlroy] would tell you the same thing, or Dustin [Johnson] or Scottie [Scheffler].”

South Africa’s Christo Lamprecht is the number one amateur in the world going in to the 2024 Masters. (Photo: Luke Walker / Getty Images)

South Africa’s contingent is as thin as it’s ever been. Erik van Rooyen, winner on the PGA Tour earlier this year, is in the field, as is Charl Schwartzel, courtesy of being a former winner.

The contingent is completed by Christo Lamprecht, a senior at Georgia Tech, who is the top player in the World Amateur Golf Ranking. DM

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Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Steve Chiaberta says:

    Sheer greed is starting to kill golf, the same way it maimed Super Rugby and has weakened boxing so badly. It’s incredible how, for so many people, there’s no such thing as enough money.

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