AUGUSTA, Ga. — The mystery began in earnest last spring and lasted until fall twilight. But Phil Mickelson – among the most famous leaders of LIV Golf, the league funded by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund – insists he believed he would be cleared to play the 2023 Masters Tournament, which opens on Thursday.
Never mind the discomfort, or how the rivalries on the course had turned into long-range furies tinged with politics, power, pride and money. No, Mickelson explained, tradition would prevail at Augusta National Golf Club, certainly among the safest sportsbooks.
“The history of this tournament, the history of the majors, is about bringing together the best players, and it really needs to rise above any kind of disruption to the golf ecosystem,” said three-time winner Mickelson. of the Masters, in an interview last month.
“I wasn’t really worried,” said Mickelson, who spent the 2022 Masters in self-imposed sporting exile after downplaying human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia. But, he admitted, “there was talk” of exclusion from one of golf’s most revered events.
Augusta National shut down the discussion Dec. 20: If a golfer qualified for the Masters through one of its familiar pathways, such as being a past champion, their 2023 invitation would be mailed.
The club’s choice will infuse its grounds until at least Sunday, when the tournament is due to end, weather permitting. All the usual narratives that surround a major tournament are bubbling up: Will Scottie Scheffler become the first repeat winner in over two decades? Could Rory McIlroy finally complete the Career Grand Slam? Can Jon Rahm regain his dominant winter form? And, as always, what will Tiger Woods do?
But an undercurrent of ambition, curiosity and divisiveness masked by kindness is also present.
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 show that its 72-hole approach to an ancient game is still king. And for Augusta National, the tournament is an opportunity to pose as a skeptic above golf’s chaotic fray.
“At the Dinner of Champions, I wouldn’t have known there was anything more going on in the world of professional golf than the norm,” Fred S. Ridley, president of Augusta National, said Wednesday the day after the traditional gathering of former Masters winners. .
He added: “So I think, and I hope, this week might get people thinking in a little bit different direction and things will change.”
He was pretty sure this week wouldn’t escalate into open fights, and it didn’t. Some players have complained of an overfocus of the media on any potential tension – and acknowledged that they too have wondered about the mood and considered the stakes of their tours.
Cameron Smith, at No. 6, the highest-ranked LIV player, said PGA Tour players greeted him with hugs and handshakes. When asked what exactly he had planned, he replied, “I wasn’t really sure, to be honest.”
It seemed more certain that LIV could use a strong performance in the rankings around Augusta National’s hallowed stage.
“I think it’s just important for the guys at LIV to be up there because I think we have to be up there,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of chatter about these guys not playing real golf; these guys don’t play on real golf courses. Of course, I’ll be the first to say that the fields aren’t as strong. I’ll be the first to say this, but we still have a lot of guys up there who can play really serious golf.
Rory McIlroy, seemingly close to sainthood in the eyes of PGA Tour leaders for his steadfast defense of their Tour, said the Masters was “much bigger” than golf’s great spat and relished the opportunity to compete against 18 LIV players who are among the best golfers in the world. Being with them again, he suggested, can build relationships, though he acknowledged that restored closeness was no guarantee of perpetual harmony.
“It’s a very nuanced situation and there are different dynamics,” McIlroy said. Referring to LIV stars and big winners Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson, he added, “You know, it’s good to get along with Brooks and DJ and maybe not get along with d other guys who went to LIV, right?”
For its part, Augusta National, whose list of private members is said to include at least two former secretaries of state, has sought to reduce the theatrics.
Groupings for Thursday and Friday are about as innocuous as possible, at least in the PGA Tour vs LIV context. Woods and Bryson DeChambeau, who recently suggested that Woods practically excommunicated him, will not have a meeting on the first tee. Fred Couples, a PGA Tour loyalist who called LIV’s Sergio Garcia a “clown” and Mickelson a “crackpot”, is set to play alongside Russell Henley and Alex Noren. McIlroy is grouped with Sam Burns and Tom Kim.
And Ridley clarified that Augusta National had not invited LIV commissioner Greg Norman to the club, where PGA Tour and DP World Tour executives have been holding classes for the past few days.
“The main 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 past decade, once as a radio commentator.
Ridley also dodged the question of 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 up to others to decide exactly what that means. These are personal decisions of these players, which, you know, at a high level, I don’t necessarily agree with.”
With the tournament due to begin on Thursday morning, the focus of the week quickly shifts to the competition itself. The event’s US broadcasters seem unlikely to dwell on off-course topics unless they do.
“We’re not going to put our heads in the sand,” said Sean McManus, president of CBS Sports, which airs rounds three and four Saturday and Sunday. “Having said that, unless it really affects the story that unfolds on the golf course, we’re not going to go out of our way to cover it up, and I’m not sure there’s anything. either we can add to the story.”
ESPN, which will broadcast the first two rounds of the tournament, hinted that it was even less interested in the geopolitical soap opera of golf. Curtis Strange, the two-time US Open champion who is now a commentator, said he hadn’t “seen us mention Roman numerals at all”.
“We have to respect the masters tournament,” he said. “The only way I could ever see anything happen – and without even mentioning LIV – but some of these players haven’t played much competitive golf. So how sharp can they be?”
LIV golfers said they would be ready for the rigors of the Masters, even though they played 54-hole events, instead of 72, on courses some doubt will be ready for the challenges of ‘Augusta.
This dynamic will make this year’s tournament more of a testing ground than usual. But there’s always next year: When Augusta National released its Masters entry criteria for 2024 on Wednesday, no changes immediately threatened LIV players.
Mickelson’s bet always proved safe.