The news that Augusta National’s invitation policy would remain unchanged for 2023 was hardly a surprise.
Despite early rumours in media circles that a certain Masters champion had been told he would no longer be welcome on the property should he join the then Super Golf League, it’s been pretty clear for some time that this would not be the case.
Back in October, R&A CEO Martin Slumbers declared that the Open Championship would remain just that – open. There’d be nothing prohibiting LIV Golf players from entering Open Qualifying, and without directly saying exemptions would remain, by saying he was looking forward to seeing Cameron Smith “tee up around 9.40 a.m. on the first day of the Open next year,” he basically confirmed it.
Augusta National have always been trend setters rather than trend followers, but they’ve also only ever acted in their own best interests, therefore, we all knew that Smith, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, etc. would be getting their letters of invitation from Fred Ridley in the new year.
And LIV golfers will be very conspicuous by their presence. Typically numbering 100 or a few shy, The Masters has the smallest field of the four majors. Along with Green Jacket winners Mickelson, Johnson, Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson, invitations will also go to Cameron Smith, Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka, Louis Oosthuizen, Joaquin Niemann, Abraham Ancer, Jason Kokrak, Talor Gooch, Harold Varner III and Kevin Na.
Assuming there are no further defections in the intervening months, it’s likely that one in every five players heading down Magnolia Lane in April will be LIV members. As it stands, only Paul Casey, at 57 in the world rankings, is in with a realistic shot at playing his way in. While the courts will ultimately decide whether LIV golfers will be barred from DP World Tour events, in the meantime, they’re welcome to play. I fully expect Casey, barring injuries, to tee it up in the Middle-East in January, knowing that a couple of good weeks could see him move comfortably inside the top 50 again.
Then there’s the WGC Matchplay, which is co-sanctioned by the PGA and DP World Tours. Without playing, then there’s a good chance that all barring Cam Smith will have slipped outside the OWGR top-64, but if the February legal hearing presided over by Sport Resolutions UK decree that the DP World Tour’s suspension of LIV Players cannot be upheld, would that mean that any LIV rebels still inside the top-64 can tee it up at Austin Country Club?
In the other majors, Smith, Mickelson, Oosthuizen and Stenson are all exempt at the Open Championship until they turn 60, Mickelson, Koepka and Martin Kaymer have lifetime PGA Championship exemptions, and Koepka and DeChambeau are exempt at the US Open until 2029 and 2030 respectively. Besides those, Smith’s Open Championship win last year means he’s guaranteed invitations to the other three majors through 2027, with Mickelson (2026), Johnson and DeChambeau (2025), and Koepka (2024) all in similar boats, with Patrick Reed entering the final year of his five-year ticket.
Obviously, performing at the majors is the best way to guarantee you return, but I’d suspect the governing bodies would rather guarantee the quality of their fields rather than leave it to chance.
In all likelihood, LIV will continue to pick quality players, so what may seem like a trivial issue at present for Augusta National, the R&A, the USGA and the PGA of America, will become much more significant as time progresses.
Of course, to their benefit, each of the governing bodies can dance to their own tune. Augusta National are unlikely to make any drastic changes to their qualification criteria – at least not anytime soon – the two Opens will probably hold firm for a couple of years as well, but the PGA Championship, already the red-headed stepchild, pride themselves as having the strongest field in major golf.
I’d expect them to blink first, but quite how they do it is another matter. Despite having no official world ranking exemption criteria, they’ve invariably invited anyone in the top 100 not already qualified, thereby guaranteeing the strength of the field. Come May, the OWGR will in no way reflect the genuine top 100. They currently invite the top 70 on the PGA money list (from the week following the previous PGA Championship to a fortnight prior to the current) but have no such criteria for the DP World Tour.
Any guaranteed invitations for a certain amount of top-ranking LIV Golf players would surely be a smack in the face for the already marginalised DP World Tour, but seemingly random selections would undermine the integrity of the event that’s already had the indignity of moving schedule to accommodate the Fed-Ex Cup.
Fred Ridley may have answered the most imminent question, but many more remain.
The LIV saga rumbles on.