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Honourable draw at Augusta as rivals LIV to fight another day

Bob Holmes
Bob Holmes • 7 min read
Honourable draw at Augusta as rivals LIV to fight another day
Rahm during the Mutuactivos Open de Espana, Golf European Tour in 2019 in Madrid, Spain / Photo: Shutterstock
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The storm raged, three Georgia pines fell, but the citadel still stands. There was no “bust-up in Augusta” or whatever tacky tagline LIV golf — or boxing’s Don King — might have concocted. It was neither a thrilla nor a rumble: golfing peace prevailed at the marathon 87th Masters.

The game’s establishment was spared the indignity of having to drape the venerable Green Jacket around uppity, money-grabbing shoulders. But there were three rebels in the top five, including the most uppity of all, Phil Mickelson, tied for an unlikely second place at 52 years of age.

Yet, the predicted storming of the 18th green upon an LIV victory didn’t materialise as PGA Tour loyalist Jon Rahm kept them at bay by four strokes. Dare it be said, the burly Spaniard held the Rahmparts.

So, what to make of the latest encounter in golf’s civil war? The truce held more easily than some hype merchants had predicted. There never was going to be brawling on the sacred fairways or verbal spats in the hallowed halls. And once the belligerent LIV CEO Greg Norman was not invited, the threat level was downgraded.

The hosts were savvy enough not to make their former champions pariahs — Norman famously never won here — and player relations were cordial with almost all realising that both sides need each other.

Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley said, “At the champion’s dinner, I would not have known anything was going on in the world of professional golf other than the norm.” As 10th place finisher Matt Fitzpatrick put it, “If the LIV guys weren’t here, the winner’s name would always carry an asterisk.”

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For three days, it looked like an LIV golfer would win, as Brooks Koepka led from the start. And Mickelson went from persona non grata to ageless wonder with the round of the tournament. If there was no mano-a-mano down the 18th, it was still a memorable Sunday in the Easter sunshine.

But despite the apparent normalcy of one of sport’s most storied occasions, all is far from well in the golfing universe. The establishment was buoyed by an eve of tournament verdict in a London court that went against the rebels. A dozen players, including Ryder Cup stars Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter, had sued the DP (formerly European) Tour for banning and fining them for jumping ship to LIV golf.

The Dirty Dozen, as they were inevitably dubbed, took the LIV zillions but still wanted to play on their old tour. The judgment was they couldn’t have their cake and eat it. They now have 30 days to pay £100,000 in fines, while the DP Tour’s victory came at a price — £10 million in legal fees.

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This ruling came on the heels of a California judge ordering LIV to open their books on funding and the people behind it. This had unintended consequences for LIV’s main backer, Yasir Al-Rumayyan, who is chairman of Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF). By insisting that he is a sitting member of the Saudi cabinet in claiming sovereign immunity in golf, he scored an own goal in football.

A clinching factor in PIF’s purchase of EPL club Newcastle United was Al-Rumayyan’s insistence that he had nothing to do with the Saudi government! At the very least, he may need a cabinet reshuffle just for himself.

You could say the sport is in just as big a muddle. Augusta stumped up a record US$18 million ($24 million) purse, with US$3.24 million going to the winner. But it is US$2 million less than what was up for grabs at the RBC Heritage at Hilton Head the week after. Once a middling tourney that many stars skipped as it immediately followed the season’s glittering highlight, it is now an “elevated event” with even more money than The Masters!

It was “elevated” by the PGA Tour in response to LIV’s emerging threat. But even that sum was dwarfed by LIV’s total purse in its concurrent event in Adelaide — a staggering US$25 million, with the winner picking up US$4 million. No wonder people are saying the game has gone berserk.

The Masters provided a rare outbreak of sanity that enabled the best of both tours to play, something that looks likely to happen only four times a year — at the majors. It’s when the hosts have the right to invite who they want and override any tour bans.

During the rest of the calendar, while players on both sides are becoming exceedingly rich, fans and viewers are being short-changed. No one can deny that LIV has purloined some of the world’s biggest names and thereby diluted the fields at other tournaments. As for LIV’s events, they are still struggling to get a mainstream broadcaster to carry them.

It is because there are exhibitions that are shallow, showy and short. Lasting only three days, with no cut, many wondered if the easy life had dulled their players’ competitive edge. Koepka’s fourth-day fade suggested it might, but was more than countered by the trio in the top five. A year since hostilities began, this civil war has yet to have its decisive battle.

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Augusta was never going to be the place. The weather dampened spirits and rebels revere it too much, even though their “Golf, but louder” motto is anathema to the royal and ancient game.

At tee-off, silence is golden at The Masters. Phones are handed in as you enter while a sepulchral hush still holds sway when a player prepares to hit. Anyone with the temerity to open a sweet packet may find himself eating it in Magnolia Lane.

Even the terminology is gentrified: fans are called patrons, rubbish is known as refuse, stalls are concessions and vulgarity is simply not allowed. And then you have LIV. As blatant an exercise in sportswashing that it is with money being the sole motivation for players to join, there can be no doubt that it has caused the PGA Tour to up its game.

Prize money has soared by US$150 million for 2023 while the number of fully exempt players was reduced from 125 to 70, which means the top guys will make a whole lot more. It is all aimed at staunching the exodus to LIV.

But with a business model built around team play in the most individual of sports, LIV’s strategy looks fundamentally flawed. The Ryder Cup is the only time team golf works and the prospect of teams eventually becoming franchises looks fanciful — especially without a major TV deal.

Concocted names such as Range Goats, Cleeks, Fireballs, Ripper and Torque, sometimes made up of multinational quartets, do not suggest they are likely to ignite undying fervour around the globe. Even Norman himself did not look convinced when pressed on the matter.

An alternative tour is not a bad thing per se — more competition and all that. But the PGA Tour, even with its two principal cheerleaders, Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy, bowing out early at Augusta, held firm.

LIV has been generous to the Asian Tour but offers little innovation or appeal to the wider public: good luck with changing the perception that it’s all about greed and sportswashing! Its deep pockets mean it can play a long game, but it is not something the Range Goats and Fireballs are likely to change any time soon. E Bob Holmes is a long-time sportswriter specialising in football

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