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The Majors Have a Major Decision to Make On LIV Golf Players' Eligibility

LIV Golf players exempt for this week's U.S. Open will be playing. But will that continue in golf's four most important events? Alex Miceli can envision trouble if it doesn't.
The 15th green at Augusta National

Could Augusta National prohibit past champions from competing based on their LIV Golf affiliation? What would Bobby Jones think?

It wasn’t that long ago that the four major championships were privately incensed about the move that Greg Norman and his LIV Golf tour were making to take on professional golf — or more appropriately, the PGA Tour.

Golf generally is a fraternity and not everyone is asked to join.

Now with the inaugural LIV Golf event in the books and the list of prominent players growing (Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed and Pat Perez the latest), the majors have a decision to make: Do they support tradition, or do they invite the outlier LIV Tour to join the club?

The PGA Tour has made its feelings known about the LIV Tour and while the DP World Tour has been relatively silent, with its financial health tied to the PGA Tour that acquired a minority stake in the European Tour Productions and PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan receiving a seat on the European Tour board, it’s clear its European position will follow the PGA Tour lead.

The majors — the Masters, PGA Championship, U.S. Open and British Open — are businesses foremost and excluding the Masters, the PGA and two opens would likely not be able to survive and clearly wouldn’t be able to provide the services to amateur golf or other programs to support and grow the game.

Even the Masters, which seems to have more money than others would over time be affected.

As a business, the relationship between the PGA Tour and the majors makes perfect sense. But as the defections grow, with 20 PGA Tour players now with the outlier tour, as a business the majors need to take a serious look at what makes sense for them individually.

When the war started between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf, the belief was the four majors would have the PGA Tour's back and that players that jumped to the rival tour would lose their access to the majors.

But that has changed, first with the U.S. Open reiterating that they are an open championship, allowing exempt LIV players to compete next week at The Country Club outside of Boston.

At the same time, the USGA left the door open to what might happen next year with their qualification process that would clearly factor in LIV golf, but not in a positive way.

“Our decision regarding our field for the 2022 U.S. Open should not be construed as the USGA supporting an alternative organizing entity, nor supportive of any individual player actions or comments,’’ the USGA said in its statement. “Rather, it is simply a response to whether or not the USGA views playing in an alternative event, without the consent of their home tour, an offense that should disqualify them for the U.S. Open.’’

Would the USGA really want to put the quality of the U.S. Open in jeopardy?

If they did deny players, what would their television partners and sponsors say when the field, interest and ratings started to suffer?

Would denying LIV players not send the wrong message and would it not be the biggest story and ultimately upstaging its own event?

These are just some of the issues all the majors face.

Ultimately, you come back to the overwhelmingly point that it’s a business.

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Is the value of the Masters depleted if five or 10 of the previous champions are not invited to the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night or lose their lifetime exemptions because they left the PGA Tour?

Everything at Augusta National is measured by what Bobby Jones would do.

“I hope he would be proud,” Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley said in April when asked what Jones would make of the state of affairs at Augusta National under his tenure. “I hope that he would feel that we continue to carry the tradition and values he thought were so important in the game. I think he would be amazed.”

It’s not clear how Jones would feel about the LIV Golf insurrection, but you would believe the greatest amateur in the game would not be pleased if the Masters became a political football. The actions of not inviting former champions to the dinner or barring them from competition may do exactly that.

Augusta has shown it is not really concerned by what others outside of Magnolia Lane think. They fought the women’s membership issue for years, even though they did not purposefully deny female membership, they were just unwilling to do what others were telling them to do and make a statement by expanding their membership to women.

The tournament even went to the extraordinary lengths of broadcasting their event without sponsors or advertisers for all four rounds in 2003, giving IBM, Coca-Cola and Citigroup political cover from women’s groups.

Eventually, on its own timeline, Augusta National expanded its membership to two women, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and South Carolina financier Darla Moore.

This situation may be more difficult for Augusta than female membership. With many C-suite members of multinational corporations and the legacy of Jones, the Masters may not be able to ignore the LIV tour or its players.

PGA of America CEO Seth Waugh is a businessman, a former CEO of Deutsche Bank Americas and a managing director of investment firm Silver Lake.

Waugh has two issues to address, the PGA Championship next May and the Ryder Cup in Rome next September.

At the PGA last month at Southern Hills, Waugh, who is extremely close with Monahan going back to the days when Deutsche Bank sponsored the PGA Tour event in Boston and Monahan was the tournament director, was supportive toward to the Tour.

Waugh took the position that the PGA is a big supporter of the ecosystem as it stands and believed the league structure is somewhat flawed.

“The Tour is owned by the players, and that means that everything ultimately flows back to the players,” Waugh said, underscoring his position that bringing outside money into golf would be a mistake. “As soon as you put any money into it, it's going to create a need for return, a need for exit, and a lot of things that change the dynamics of it, which we don't think is necessarily good for the ecosystem.”

Waugh admitted they would have a lot of time before the next PGA at Oak Hill to see where everything is going but did state that according to their bylaws, you can only play in the PGA Championship if you’re a member of a recognized tour.

Regarding the Ryder Cup, it’s as simple as you must be a member of the PGA of America in good standing. Generally that means paying your dues, but it’s not something the PGA of America is willing to define.

Ultimately, Waugh is a businessman and understands the potential financial exposure that his organization could come under with a membership of over 24,000 PGA professionals to be looked after.

Both the PGA Championship and Ryder Cup are the cash cows that keep the organization afloat, and to ban players from either event is like the issue that Whan would face at the USGA, Ridley at Augusta National and Martin Slumbers at the R&A — the potential of putting out a product that is inferior and potentially rolling the dice on their future.

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