The Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Course in Georgia is a tradition-bound event with an unsurpassed legacy where the greatest in the game come to compete in the first major of the season. Still, it’s not without controversy. The latest example is the invitation to 16 players (including six former winners) aligned with the upstart Saudi-backed LIV Golf League, which is at odds with the PGA (Professional Golf Association) Tour. According to the tournament, a total of 78 players qualified to play in the 87th tournament set for April 6-9.
There is a long list of qualifications, including those who previously won the tournament (or were in the top 12 the previous year), current ranking, winners of other major tournaments, amateur champions, and similar standards.
Alluding to the controversy surrounding the schism, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley released a statement on December 20, 2022, with the official invites to qualified players:
“As we have said in the past, we look at every aspect of the tournament each year, and any modifications or changes to invitation criteria for future tournaments will be announced in April. We have reached a seminal point in the history of our sport. At Augusta National, we have faith that golf, which has overcome many challenges throughout the years, will endure again.”
Why the controversy?
The PGA sees LIV Golf as a direct threat to its men’s tour, siphoning off marquee players that draw people to the events and their televisions. It responded by banning LIV golfers from the PGA Tour and assigning no ranking points for wins on the LIV tour.
Players who defected argue that the tour does not pay top players enough and minimums are too low to defer the six-figure cost to compete. It is not the first time the PGA has faced these accusations, and it now operates as a non-profit (albeit one where tour officials are extremely well-compensated with perks like private jets).
The LIV Golf series is run by former pro champion and world no. 1 Greg Norman and backed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) – a sovereign wealth fund worth $500 billion that Mohammed bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, chairs. It pays millions to players who join the tour – including a reported $200 million to Phil Mickelson. Even players who finish last receive a $150,000 check.
PGA defenders led by Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods have been blunt in their criticism, but that didn’t stop Michelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson from going to LIV. The players were all invited to the Masters because they qualified, so it could make for some interesting moments on and off the course in April. It will be interesting to see if the Masters changes its rules for next year and whether the tournament invites them back.
Lawsuits from both sides
Several LIV tour players and LIV Golf filed an antitrust lawsuit against the PGA, accusing the PGA of using its powers to punish outside competition that challenges its monopoly. The PGA countersued, denying all claims. The outcomes of these suits will no doubt be news as the courts rule.