Bubba Watson drags Augusta National further into LIV-PGA Tour battle

·5 min read

Through the entire LIV Golf/PGA Tour battle of 2022, Augusta National has done what it always does in the long months between the awarding of one green jacket and the arrival of the next spring: remained silent behind its Washington Road gates while the world moved on outside.

But the battle enveloping the golf world has now crested the ivy-covered walls around Augusta National. Speaking before LIV’s fourth event, scheduled this weekend outside Boston, two-time Masters champion Bubba Watson all but dared Augusta National to take action, one way or another, on the LIV defectors who jumped ship from the PGA Tour.

The timing of LIV’s emergence — after the Masters and the PGA Championship, but before the U.S. Open and the Open Championship — meant that the latter two majors had to address the issue, and did so by upholding their commitment to players who had earned their way in. Augusta National did not need to make any comment, given that its tournament was already past, and has not responded to inquiries from media organizations, including Yahoo Sports.

Watson has a lifetime exemption to the Masters, as do fellow LIV players/Masters champions Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Charl Schwartzel, Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia. In all, LIV players have won seven of the past 13 Masters, which presents a challenging situation for Augusta National, devoted as it is to its ethos of producing the best possible tournament every year.

“For me, it’s a weird situation being a Masters champion,” Watson said. “Right now, we can play in it, and I'm hoping and praying they make the right decisions.”

And then he took it to another level. “I sat my kids down and told them there is a possibility we can't go to Augusta,” Watson added. “If they [the powers that be at Augusta National] tell me I can’t go, [even being a] past champion, then I don't want to be there anyway because that's just the wrong way to look at it.”

Mickelson’s lawsuit drew in Augusta National

Augusta National does not like being pushed around, not by changing times, not by sponsors and partners, not by former champions. But the LIV controversy is bringing new attention to the quiet Georgia club, first with Phil Mickelson’s absence earlier this year, and more recently with Augusta National’s appearance in Mickelson’s lawsuit against the PGA Tour.

“Augusta National, the promoter of The Masters, has taken multiple actions to indicate its alignment with the PGA Tour, thus seeding doubt among top professional golfers whether they would be banned from future Masters Tournaments,” Mickelson’s lawsuit read. The suit further charges that “the PGA Tour has used [existing] channels to pressure Augusta National to do its bidding. For example, in February, 2022, Augusta National representatives threatened to disinvite players from The Masters if they joined LIV Golf.”

The suit further charges that Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley “personally instructed a number of participants in the 2022 Masters not to play in the LIV Golf Invitational Series.” That’s a rather different portrayal of the way that Ridley characterized LIV in his public comments in April.

“Our mission is to always act in the best interest of the game in whatever form that may take,” Ridley said in April. “I think that golf is in a good place right now. There’s more participation, the purses on the professional tours are the highest they’ve ever been. We’ve been pretty clear in our belief that the world tours have done a great job in promoting the game over the years. Beyond that, there’s so much that we don’t know about what might happen or what could happen, I can’t say much more beyond that.”

How the Masters field is determined

While much of the Masters field is drawn from the players who rank in the world top 50 shortly before each year’s tournament, the Masters’ own criteria offer a few other ways for LIV players to play their way into the field. Past champions, of course, have a lifetime exemption, and high performers at the other three majors earn exemptions of varying lengths. (Winners get five years; top-four finishers get one.)

For instance, LIV’s Cam Smith, under current qualifying rules, would be eligible to play in the Masters from next year through the 2027 tournament on the basis of his 2022 Open Championship win. Several U.S. amateur winners, like Andy Ogletree and James Piot, have jumped to LIV; they were entitled to one Masters tournament the year after their victory.

Augusta National maintains the right to invite players at its own discretion; these invitations generally go to notable international players. Winners of all PGA Tour events get invitations to the next Masters, as well, but not LIV events.

Even so, LIV is now dealing from a position of strength, and the players understand it. Several this week have repeated the same mantra: LIV has a stable of strong players, majors claim they want the strongest fields, ergo majors have to include LIV players.

“The No. 2 player in the world (Smith) is now here,” Watson said. “So if you're going to try to see the best players in the world, then you should have World Ranking points (for LIV) because these are the best players in the world here, just like everywhere else across the world.”

“We earn our place in the majors and if they want to see real competition, they have to have the top players,” Joaquin Niemann added. “That's why the majors are there.”

Augusta National tends to keep an almost-invisible profile until such time as it can control the narrative, so — barring a decision on LIV’s world rankings status — a statement from the club prior to next spring is unlikely. At that point, however, the club will find itself exactly where the PGA Tour has spent the last few months: right in the middle of the fight over golf’s future.

Bubba Watson may not find Augusta National as welcoming as it was for him in 2014.  (David Cannon/Getty Images)
Bubba Watson may not find Augusta National as welcoming as it was for him in 2014. (David Cannon/Getty Images)

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Contact Jay Busbee at jay.busbee@yahoo.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.