Augusta National Golf Club will allow members of the breakaway LIV Golf league to compete in the Masters Tournament, the first men’s golf major of 2023.
The decision by the private club, which organizes the invitational tournament and has exclusive authority over who walks its hilly, pristine course each April, is an interim victory for LIV, the upstart operation bankrolled by Saudi Arabia’s sovereign wealth fund to much of the golf establishment’s fury.
“Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it,” Fred S. Ridley, Augusta National’s chairman, said in a Tuesday statement. “Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a pre-eminent field of golfers this coming April.”
But the approach announced by the club on Tuesday — continuing to rely on qualifying categories that often hinge on performances in PGA Tour competitions or other majors, or on certain thresholds in the Official World Golf Ranking — threatens to limit access for LIV players as more years pass, which could ultimately make it more difficult for LIV to attract new golfers.
Ridley said Augusta National evaluates “every aspect of the tournament each year, and any modifications or changes to invitation criteria for future tournaments will be announced in April.”
LIV did not immediately comment on Tuesday.
The organizers of the British Open, the P.G.A. Championship and the U.S. Open have not said how or whether they will adjust their 2023 entry standards in the wake of LIV Golf’s emergence this year. Augusta National, though, has now offered what could be a template for LIV’s short-term relationships with the major tournaments.
Augusta National, for instance, did not abandon its tradition of offering past winners lifetime entry into the tournament, a reprieve for the six LIV players who have already earned green jackets: Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson. Recent winners of other majors will still qualify for the 2023 Masters, clearing the way, for at least a little longer, for players like Bryson DeChambeau, Brooks Koepka and Cameron Smith.
And Augusta, which has become entangled in the Justice Department’s antitrust inquiry into men’s professional golf, will continue to admit players who are in the top 50 in the world rankings at certain times.
The world ranking system is a weapon that is as subtle and technical (and disputed) as it is consequential and, for some golfers, determinative. LIV players do not currently earn ranking points for their 54-hole, no-cut events, and they have fallen in the rankings as other golfers have kept playing tournaments on eligible tours. In July, LIV applied to be included in the rankings, and more recently, it partnered with the MENA Tour, which is a part of the system, to try to keep its players in the mix.
But the board that oversees the rankings includes golf executives whose reactions to the breakaway series have ranged from skeptical to hostile, and the group has not embraced LIV’s requests. If major tournaments like the Masters continue to use world ranking points as a qualifying method, at least some players will see their entry prospects evaporate. A sustained reliance on PGA Tour events as other qualifying avenues will also stanch access for LIV players.
Whether LIV golfers can play the majors may be crucial to the upstart’s prospects in the years ahead. Beyond golfing glory, major championship winners earn heightened public profiles, and they are more likely to attract lucrative sponsorship arrangements. If LIV’s players face extraordinary constraints on their chances simply to reach a major tournament field, much less to win the competition, the league may have trouble recruiting new players.
The possibility of exclusion from the majors was enough to warrant a brief legal spat over the summer, when the LIV players Talor Gooch, Matt Jones and Hudson Swafford asked a federal judge to order their participation in the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs. Gooch, Jones and Swafford had all failed to qualify for the 2023 majors through other means, and their lawyers warned that keeping them from the playoffs would probably end their chances at doing so. Heeding the arguments of the PGA Tour, which said that “antitrust laws do not allow plaintiffs to have their cake and eat it too,” the judge turned back their request.
Augusta National’s decision on Tuesday, fleeting as it might ultimately prove, is still a milestone for LIV, which has not signed a television contract or attracted marquee sponsors. Those symptoms of trouble have only deepened concerns about the long-term viability of the new tour, which many critics regard largely as a means for Saudi Arabia to sanitize its reputation as a human rights abuser. Last week, the circuit acknowledged that its chief operating officer, who was widely seen as integral to its business ambitions, had resigned.
In recent months, Greg Norman, LIV’s chief executive, urged major tournaments to “stay Switzerland” and allow his circuit’s players to participate.
“The majors need the strength of field,” Norman, a two-time British Open victor and three-time runner-up at the Masters, said last month. “They need the best players in the business. They want the best competition for their broadcasting, for their sponsors, all the other things that come with it.”
But LIV stands to benefit, too. A victory in a major by one of its players, LIV supporters have said, would give the circuit greater legitimacy.
“If it is a LIV player who wins a major next year,” Norman said, “that goes to show you how we work within the ecosystem.”