AUGUSTA, Ga. — There are 88 players in the field for the 87th Masters. They are divided into two groups: 18 of “them” and 70 of “us,” depending on your perspective. It’s a dividing line almost as stark as those with green jackets and those without.
“There’s a lot of chatter about, ‘These guys don’t play real golf; these guys don’t play real golf courses,’ ” said Australian Cameron Smith, the winner of last summer’s British Open, the most recent major.
That’s the test, then. Does LIV’s lucrative-but-lax format properly prepare its players for major championship golf? LIV plays without cuts. LIV plays three rounds instead of four. LIV guarantees its players money regardless of performance. LIV has staged three tournaments this calendar year. The PGA Tour has staged 15.
“The fields aren’t as strong,” Smith allowed. “I’m the first one to say that. But we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf, and we compete against each other hard, week in and week out.”
Uh, check that, Cam. How’s month in and month out? The first LIV season concluded in November. The second began with a tournament in February. Then came two weeks off, another event in mid-March, a week off and the just-completed event outside Orlando. But anyway …
“He’s probably right,” LIV headliner and three-time Masters champ Phil Mickelson said of Smith. “It would be nice to validate the amount of talent that is over there on LIV, and I think a lot of guys are playing really well heading in.”
LIV is not going to go away because of poor TV ratings or small galleries. It is not going to go away because it can’t draw title sponsors for its tournaments. It is not going to go away because it guaranteed hundreds of millions to players in guaranteed contracts and pays the winner of its Orlando event $4 million and $3 million more to the winners of a four-player team element.
The Saudis have what amounts to unlimited money, bloodstained as it is by the murderous regime that provides it, lightly laundered. They have convinced these players to take it, ramifications be damned, and tricked them into publicly claiming it’ll “grow the game.”
So LIV will, ahem, live as long as the Saudis want it to. But what’s at stake here is the competitive legitimacy of the renegade circuit. LIV has, inarguably, forced positive change on the PGA Tour. But if iron sharpens iron — and the leader boards at the PGA Tour’s new “elevated” events have been gangbusters for golf fans — do pillows soften pillows?
In other words: Does playing shotgun starts over three days with fields of 48 provide the same preparation for the tournaments that determine a player’s legacy as playing 72-hole events in which there can be 144 players and you must make the cut to receive a check?
If the leader board on the back nine Sunday here reads, in some order, Scottie Scheffler, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and Collin Morikawa, and you have to scan down before you find Smith, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Patrick Reed and Bryson DeChambeau … well, the answer will be apparent. LIV needs its players in the Masters to be relevant over the weekend. The consequence of not contending could be vanishing from consciousness.
And it’s as if the LIV players know they’re not as prepared as they would be. Back when they departed the PGA Tour — which had warned that it would ban players who defected and has followed through — some justified the decision by saying they wanted more control over their schedule. That’s bunk. The opposite is true. LIV has 14 events around the world for the entire 2023 season. The players have to show up on those dates.
“Look, I’ve played five events this year,” said Koepka, who arrived here having won the LIV event Sunday and has played the three LIV tournaments and two more on the Asian tour. “Usually, I’d play six coming into this.”
Six? Last year, Brooks, you played eight times before Augusta.
“I mean, I usually don’t play that many,” Johnson said. “I probably only played one or two less than normal.”
Well, not really. Last year, Johnson played six times before the Masters. This year, he played three. He has not played a 72-hole event since the British Open — nine months ago. In terms of competitive rounds coming into the Masters, he had 24 a year ago, nine this year.
“If I’m ready,” he said, “I’m going to be ready no matter how many events I played.”
And by the weekend, we should have a clearer idea of the back-and-forth between those players who left and those who stayed. Smith, for one, said he wasn’t sure what to expect from the competitors he used to see week to week, but he was greeted Monday on the range with “lots of laughs and lots of handshakes.”
“It’s a very nuanced situation, and there’s different dynamics,” McIlroy said. “It’s okay to get on with Brooks and D.J. and maybe not get on with some other guys that went to LIV, right? It’s interpersonal relationships. That’s just how it goes.”
Translation: Rory isn’t buying Reed a pimento cheese sandwich anytime soon.
“But this week and this tournament is way bigger than any of that, I feel,” he continued. “And it’s just great that all of the best players in the world are together again for the first time in what seems to be quite a while.”
That much is true. In the most recent major, Smith beat McIlroy in an epic duel at St. Andrews. At the conclusion of the PGA Tour season, Smith left for LIV. McIlroy remains an “us.” Smith is now a “them.” They could both end up in contention on the back nine Sunday.
If McIlroy does, it will be as the primary PGA Tour flag-bearer. If Smith does, it will be validation — badly needed validation — of his new circuit. The Masters, almost by definition, rises above this intra-sport squabble. LIV needs its players, whether they’re prepared or not, to lift it up, too, or it will be lost.