The uncomfortable joking began months ago, when defending Masters champion and PGA Tour stalwart Scottie Scheffler ran into two-time Masters champ and LIV golf defector Bubba Watson on a vacation trip.
The two had an upcoming engagement at this week’s Masters – the champions dinner hosted by Scheffler. “I told him,” Scheffler reported earlier this year, “that I was going to have a separate table for him in the corner by himself.”
“Only kidding, obviously.”
Behind every joke is a kernel of truth. And a major undercurrent to this first Masters in the age of LIV is the forced reunion of players from both sides of professional golf’s great rift. One too wide for the Hogan Bridge to span.
Launching last year, the LIV Tour spawned big guaranteed handouts of Saudi petro dollars to its players, a spasm of lawsuits and no small amount of resentment back where it all began, back where real golf is played, the PGA Tour.
Where once pro golf was a family as harmonic as anything this side of Walton Mountain, it now enjoys all the dysfunction gathered ‘round any non-fictional Thanksgiving table.
What makes this week all the more fascinating is that the conflict will be played out at a place so famous for its strict ban on strife. The real world has weeds and naked greed and discord. The Masters tries to throw a blanket of perfect green over all that. But there is no comforter quite that large.
Fact is, so much of the Masters history has bolted to the dark side. Among the 18 LIV players qualified for the Masters are six former champions – Watson, Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Sergio Garcia, Patrick Reed and Charl Schwartzel.
And there hasn’t been a lot of LIV-and-let-LIV spirit among some of the others invited to the meal of champions.
Fred Couples has said he didn’t think he’d ever talk to Mickelson again (caught up in LIV controversy, Mickelson didn’t play in last year’s Masters; he’s likely this year).
Of the defectors, Tiger Woods has said, “They’ve turned their back on what has allowed them to get to this position.”
What promising reality programming this champions dinner might make, if only stodgy Augusta National would allow. Move over “Naked and Afraid.” Here comes “Logoed and Aggrieved.”
“I wish I could be there and just be able to see how things work out,” Jon Rahm joked earlier this year.
As for the action on the course, there could be some savory pairings Thursday, if only those in charge were in a playful mood.
Throw Woods in there with Mickelson, LIV’s controversial poster boy.
Or Rory McIlroy – the PGA Tour’s staunchest defender – with Cam Smith – the best of the LIV lot.
But, alas, can’t see it happening, for “playful” and “Masters” are two words that go together as often as “whimsical” and “funeral.”
Whether the LIV libertines should have been even allowed to play in the Masters had been up for debate. They, after all, run counter to the tournament’s strong ties to the PGA Tour and its stated affection for golf’s traditional values. But it, like the other three majors, rightly decided that all those who qualified should be invited to play. This field already is the weakest among the big-four tournaments. No need to dilute it further.
As a bonus, we now get a rare Bryson DeChambeau sighting. Who knew he still was a thing? He took the easy money and his fame seemed to have the half-life of the hula hoop.
While there won’t be two different flights and two separate scoreboards for the PGA and LIV tour players this week, there will be plenty of unofficial comparisons at play. An us-vs.-LIV attitude will be as heavy in the air as the pollen this week.
Now that they have to work a 72-hole event – LIV plays but 54 – against better competition, without the comfort of all that Saudi lucre, how will the golf rebels respond? They have much to prove.
They’ll be easy to spot, though. They’ll be the ones arguing to wear shorts on the course and trying to get a ride out to No. 13 for their shotgun start.
Some of the most biting yet sage comments I’ve seen on the other tour and the idea that LIV is little more than a dressed up exhibition have come from a Sports Illustrated interview with Jimmy Dunne, president of Seminole Golf Club and an Augusta National member. Also a member of the PGA Tour advisory board, he’s a big-time golf insider with an obvious agenda. One I endorse, so here goes:
To Dunne, pro golf must have two qualities that LIV lacks.
“One is absolute competition, the meritocracy once the tournament starts,” he said.
“The other,” he added, “is the ‘it factor,’ – the psychological component that allows a golfer to hit shots and drain putts under pressure.
“There is just something about doing something where you can’t buy your way in. You have to go out and do it. ... If you don’t play really well, you’re going to lose money for the week. That’s integral to the golf tournament. There’s got to be that pressure.”
So many LIV players are cashing in while leaving their best golf behind them. Then there is someone like Smith, who won both the British Open and The Players just last year. He was banished from the Players this year, so it will be doubly interesting to see how he reintroduces himself to the wider golf world this week. How has the sweet LIV life treated its best?
The Masters very likely will bring out the most polite, reserved traits of the warring sides. Lip-biting and tongue-holding will be epidemic. As Scheffler has said, “I think for a few weeks a year we can put all that aside, especially with Augusta National being such a special place and with the history of the game.”
LIV-er Watson, via Golfchannel.com, offered this nothing-to-see-here argument Wednesday:
“It’s only awkward in the media. I’ve talked to people that are going to be there. I’m going to sign up with Jason Day and Cam Young in the Par 3 (Contest). Some guys have already asked me to play some practice rounds.
“I have nothing against anybody. If you change jobs, I’m not mad at you.”
OK, so, there probably will be no food fight at the champions dinner. Nor flagrant fouls at Amen Corner. No high-quality smack talk inside the Tara-like press center. Nor special sequined jacket awarded a LIV man, should he win.
But we can always hope.
LIV PLAYERS INVITED TO 2023 MASTERS
Harold Varner III
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Credit: John Spink / John.Spink@ajc.com