Winning any golf tournament against some of the finest players in the world isn't an easy task. Winning two in a row against a field of major winners is an impressive achievement by any measure. Talor Gooch has done exactly that on the LIV Golf tour, winning the breakaway series' past two events.
Gooch played in the Masters last month, and is eligible to play in the PGA Championship later this month. But thanks to three new words in the United States Golf Association's qualifying criteria for this year's U.S. Open, Gooch might not be playing in the season's third major.
The combination of on-course success and major exclusion makes Gooch the current focal point in the ongoing battle between LIV and the golf establishment. Unless dramatic changes come soon, Gooch will be the first of many LIV players with world-class skill but no direct path to some majors, and no path at all to the others.
Gooch's 2023 U.S. Open saga actually began last summer, when he finished the season ranked 29th in FedEx Cup points despite not playing a PGA Tour event after May when he officially joined LIV Golf. His ranking qualified him for the PGA Tour's season-ending Tour Championship, but he wasn't permitted to participate. Gooch and two other LIV players had filed suit against the PGA Tour seeking to be allowed to play in the Tour's playoffs, but their plea was thrown out of court.
Gooch's performance last season before he joined LIV was good enough to get him into the Masters and the PGA Championship this year, as well as the Open Championship. The Masters announced last fall that it would honor existing qualifying criteria for the 2023 Masters.
However, in February, the USGA changed its criteria for participation in this year's U.S. Open. Where the tournament had previously invited "those players qualifying for the season-ending 2021 Tour Championship," the USGA now invited only "those players who qualified and were eligible for the season-ending 2022 Tour Championship." (Emphasis added.) Given that he had been suspended from the PGA Tour for joining LIV, Gooch was not "eligible" for the Tour Championship.
“That was obviously disappointing because that changed rule only affected one person, which was me,” Gooch said. “So that was frustrating and tough because with LIV still not being rewarded with World Ranking points, I have only two options to qualify for the U.S. Open: via my World Ranking, which is going to be very challenging, or trying to obviously go through the qualifying route of sectional qualifying.”
Gooch is currently ranked 60th in the world, down from a high of 31st. He'll have the opportunity to earn more points at the PGA Championship, but after that isn't scheduled to play in any non-LIV events. The top 60 players in the world three weeks prior to the U.S. Open receive an automatic invitation to that year's tournament. According to Sports Illustrated, Gooch did not submit an application to attempt to qualify through local tournaments by the Apr. 12 deadline.
Just got my invite to the PGA Champ 🙌🏻🙌🏻 now just in a position where I can play well and get in that top 60. Wish this wasn’t the case, but not an unfamiliar place.
— Talor Gooch (@TalorGooch) April 28, 2023
Worth noting: the Open Championship's qualifications invite the "top 30 players from the final 2022 FedEx Cup points list." Having finished 30th, Gooch is in. Augusta National changed its qualification language for the 2024 Masters to require eligibility to play in the Tour Championship. The change won't help Gooch, who is not amassing any FedEx Cup points while on the LIV tour.
The verbiage that the USGA and Augusta National Golf Club are using is one more method of what could be seen as a long-term campaign to bleed out LIV players from the majors. Since an actual ban would invite immediate litigation, the majors can exclude LIV players by simply tightening existing qualifying requirements in a way that, in theory, applies to all players but, in practice, only affects LIV ones.
LIV players who have won majors — for instance, Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson at the Masters, Cam Smith at the Open Championship, or Brooks Koepka at the PGA Championship and U.S. Open — have long-term, sometimes even lifetime exemptions into those tournaments.
But LIV players who aren't past champions at a given major tournament don't have an easy, guaranteed pathway into future majors. The majors don't recognize LIV victories for the purposes of automatic qualification — in other words, a LIV tournament victory doesn't result in an invitation to a major, the way a PGA Tour tournament victory does.
Moreover, the longer that LIV players go without earning Official World Golf Ranking points, the further they drop in the rankings, a significant concern given the fact that the majors fill out their fields with players in the upper echelons of the OWGR.
Gooch has played in only one U.S. Open, missing the cut at last year's event. His best finish in a major is a tie for 14th at last year's Masters. This year at Augusta, he finished in a tie for 34th, one of 12 LIV players to make the cut.
The PGA Championship is scheduled for May 18-21 at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y. The U.S. Open is scheduled for June 15-18 at Los Angeles Country Club. The next LIV Golf event is scheduled for May 12-14 at Tulsa, Oklahoma's Cedar Ridge Country Club.