When Dustin Johnson, Cameron Smith and at least 14 of their fellow LIV Golf players strut down Magnolia Lane in April, the Masters will gain a compelling subplot to perhaps the most anticipated golf major in the sport’s history.
The concern for Augusta National is just how much the virtues of the game have been “diminished”. They deliberated for so long before opting to hand out invites based on their previous criteria for this exclusive tournament before the sport was shaken by the Saudi billions.
There is much intrigue, excitement and a nervous energy gradually building from as far out as Christmas through to spring, when those melodic sounds and bright colours permeate one of the most distinguishable stages in sport.
Bryson DeChambeau declared “Christmas had come early” after his invite was delivered last week, relief for the former US Open champion and those who defected earlier this year to the rebel tour. An infamous lawsuit over LIV Golf players’ suspension from the PGA Tour lingers, with their date in court pushed back until 2024. For the time being, players from both sides of the divide will battle it out over four fascinating majors in 2023.
Rarely has golf ever generated such passion and emotion on the other side of the ropes surrounding its cast of characters. And while the circumstances have been unfortunate, with months of bickering and the sad inevitability of lifelong friendships irreparably broken following those hastily-prepared announcements about “growing the game” and “using the game as a force for good”, golf may now thrive.
A sport so long defined by Tiger Woods and the rest, many fans were supporters of this sporting titan above a desire to march parallel to the fairways alongside others in contention each week.
The narrative surrounding this Masters Tournament is wide-ranging too. The first major of a Ryder Cup year, Rory McIlroy’s quest for the lost major, which would see him join Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Gene Sarazen in that exclusive grand slam club. While LIV Golf will hope one of their own slips on the prestigious green jacket to further ruffle feathers in the game.
That is a distinct possibility with past winners Bubba Watson, Phil Mickelson, Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel poised to tee it up. Should either Johnson or Smith, the Open champion who has been knocking loudly on the door after four top-five finishes in five years at Augusta, prevail, then a strong argument could be made that the world’s premier golfer now resides away from the PGA Tour, no matter what the OWGR reads.
Smith’s argument would be especially strong given how he prevailed in such an intense match play-like duel against McIlroy on the Old Course last summer.
Will LIV Golf make another splash before the Masters? Any trepidation over prospective signings making the switch may quickly dissipate after Augusta National’s announcement. While season two will be well underway ahead of the year’s first major after stops in Mayakoba and Tucson. Get ready for weeks of gossip and rumours.
The Masters champion, Scottie Scheffler, fresh from a historic four-win season including that majestic display last April, has faded to the periphery of many golf conversations, relinquishing the No 1 ranking after McIlroy’s storming FedEx Cup run after swiftly banishing heartache from St Andrews.
The presence of captains Luke Donald and Zach Johnson lingers, too, with competition for places in Team Europe and USA fierce. The American depth will likely suppress any debate over a LIV Golf player joining the stars and stripes in Rome come September. Yet uncertainty clouds Europe’s transition away from their golden generation as Poulter, Westwood, Garcia and Paul Casey fade away.
Can Matt Fitzpatrick, Viktor Hovland and Shane Lowry kick on to ensure Europe is able to boast a potent quintet alongside McIlroy and Jon Rahm? While the likes of Adrian Meronk and Bob MacIntyre may illuminate the underdogs over the coming months, gradually closing the gap on a behemoth expected to cruise to victory despite conceding home advantage.
The Masters, as is usually the case in any year, frames the season and rewrites the narrative for what’s to come. But 2023 is not like any year. The sport has been changed forever. Its morality brought into question; but that might be the price to pay for a sport that now has an alluring shine like never before.