AUGUSTA, Ga. — Is it “us vs. them” or “us and them?”
There have been mixed signals from the 18 LIV Golf tour members about their personal approaches leading into Thursday’s first round of the 87th Masters Tournament.
Are they a renegade group out for their league’s interests this week, or just happy to be playing with their former mates on the PGA Tour, many of whom they haven’t seen since July’s British Open?
It’s not the only story, just the biggest. Next year at this time, since LIV Golf currently doesn’t receive world ranking points, there likely will be a smaller number of them represented in the Masters.
In a normal year, the focus at Augusta National Golf Club would be on Scottie Scheffler, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm, the latest Big Three of golf. They are peaking at just right time and ranked Nos. 1-3, respectively, in the world.
Scheffler is attempting to be the fourth golfer to win the Masters in back-to-back years; McIlroy hopes to complete the career Grand Slam in his ninth try; Rahm is off to a blistering start this season.
Masters 2023 leaderboard: Get the latest news from Augusta
“When the tournament starts Thursday, everybody starts even par,” Scheffler said Wednesday. “Just because you’re defending doesn’t mean I get to start at 1 under. I’ll be approaching it just like I do a lot of other tournaments.”
Five-time Masters champion Tiger Woods, playing in his 25th Masters, believes the 33-year-old McIlroy “will win” the Masters. One day.
“I think that it’s just a matter of time, whether it’s this year or next or whenever it comes, he will get it done, and he will have a career Grand Slam,” Woods said. “It’s just what year it will be; it will definitely happen.”
Rahm finished in the top 10 in his first seven events this season. Three of them were victories.
“The form, you aren’t going to always be indicative on how good of chances you have, but at the end of the day, it’s a new week, right,” Rahm said. “What you’ve done before doesn’t really matter, period. There’s been many times where there’s players that haven’t had the best year, but for some reason they feel confident on their chances and they’ve done good golf.”
LIV Golf opens Masters seeking respect
But, as has been the case all week, the focus will be on the LIV Golf players, even if Augusta National has tried to deflect attention away from them.
That’s why LIV commissioner and CEO Greg Norman wasn’t invited this year, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday.
The breakaway Saudi-backed league, which plays 54-hole tournaments with no cut and shotgun starts, is looking for some respect. A win by a LIV golfer – or a strong showing by the group – would go a long way towards doing that.
“I think it’s just important for LIV guys to be up there because I think we need to be up there,” said Cameron Smith, who, at No. 6, is the top-ranked LIV member. “I think there’s a lot of chatter about these guys don’t play real golf, these guys don’t play real golf courses.”
LIV, which started its first season last June, has played just three tournaments this season. Their players want to dispel the notion that their games might be rusty coming into the first major of the season.
“It’s not like Space Jam where they took our talents away,” said LIV’s Harold Varner III.
LIV tournaments feature 48 players, but is top heavy with former PGA Tour stars and major champions such as Smith, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Bubba Watson, Henrik Stenson, Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka, who won last week’s LIV event. The lack of depth in the field has come in for criticism.
“For sure, I’ll be the first one to say, the fields aren’t as strong (as the PGA Tour),” Smith, the current British Open champion, said Tuesday. “I’m the first one to say that. But we’ve still got a lot of guys up there that can play some really serious golf, and we compete against each other hard week-in and week-out. … It’s a good feeling to have that competition, and it’s good to see Brooks win last week. He’s playing some really good golf again. Yeah, I think we just need a good, strong finish.”
“(Smith)’s probably right,” Mickelson said. “It would be nice to validate the amount of talent that is over there on LIV, and I think a lot of guys are playing really well heading in. So I think it will be fun to watch.”
“I think we’re all competitors,” said LIV’s Kevin Na. “We all want to win. There’s not one guy out here that’s not trying to win. But it’s not about sticking it or anything like that. It’s just we’re competitors. … I think it’s going to be fun. But I’ll tell you what, I think the fans and the media are making it more interesting. If you have a LIV versus PGA Tour coming down the stretch, it’ll be fun.”
LIV golfer Sergio Garcia takes the “us and them” attitude for the week.
“I think at the end of the day, we’re all here, we’re all trying to compete,” Garcia said. “We’re going to give it our best. It doesn’t matter if you’re a PGA Tour player or LIV Golf player. I think at the end of the day we’re all going to give it our best shot, and we’ll see what happens at the end of the week.”
Ridley said as much in his news conference Wednesday.
“I’ve noticed a tone – the tone has been really good here this week,” he said. “I’ve noticed the players are interacting. Last night at the Champions Dinner, I would not have known that anything was going on in the world of professional golf other than the norm. So I think, and I’m hopeful, that this week might get people thinking in a little bit different direction and things will change.”
Indeed, the two groups have seemed to get along. McIlroy, the most outspoken PGA Tour player against LIV, went out for a practice round with Koepka, and Dustin Johnson played with the PGA Tour’s Kevin Kisner, Brian Harman and Gary Woodland. In contrast, Mickelson has only played practice rounds with fellow LIV golfers. And Wednesday, one group was an all-LIV grouping of Smith, Koepka and Jason Kokrak.
It wouldn’t be a surprise if McIlroy and Koepka, or Johnson were in the final group Sunday, battling for the green jacket.
“It’s more just two friends just wanting to play together,” Koepka said of his practice round with McIlroy. “I just wanted to play with him, just compare my game. I know he’s been playing well. So it was good for me to see, and I think it’s fun to be able to go play with these guys.”
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