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When Dustin Johnson tapped in a par putt on the 18th at St. Andrews to close out his round at the 2022 Open Championship, it marked a small but significant moment in golf history. Johnson would be the last LIV Golf player to compete in one of golf’s majors under current rules.
(Or maybe Johnson wasn’t the very last. More on that later.)
LIV Golf, the Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway tour that has lured Johnson, Phil Mickelson and other big-name players, has upended the entire golf world in the last few months. Offering enormous signing bonuses and guaranteed paydays for 54-hole no-cut tournaments, LIV is a lucrative new option for players, and an existential threat to the viability of the PGA Tour and similar tours around the world.
However, most professional golfers, even those who have jumped to LIV, place a premium on the majors. They’re fine with being barred from playing in some random Midwest insurance company-sponsored invitational, but the threat of never being able to play in the Masters, the U.S. Open, the PGA Championship or the Open Championship again … that carries weight.
"Some of these (LIV) players may not ever get a chance to play in major championships," Tiger Woods said on Tuesday. "That is a possibility. We don't know that for sure yet. It's up to all the major championship bodies to make that determination. But that is a possibility, that some players will never, ever get a chance to play in a major championship, never get a chance to experience this right here, walk down the fairways at Augusta National."
Martin Slumbers, chairman of the R&A, which manages golf worldwide outside North America, went a step further in criticizing the "free lunch" that LIV players were attempting to obtain. "We have been asked quite frequently about banning players. Let me be very clear. That's not on our agenda. But what is on our agenda is that we will review our exemptions and qualifications criteria for The Open," Slumbers said. "And whilst we do that every year, we absolutely reserve the right to make changes as our Open Championships Committee deems appropriate. Players have to earn their place in The Open, and that is fundamental to its ethos and its unique global appeal."
How do players get into majors?
Majors fill out their fields by a variety of ways, but for players who haven’t previously won the tournament, the easiest and most sustainable way to get an automatic entry is to play well enough to rank among the world’s best — top 50 for the Masters and Open Championship, top 60 for the U.S. Open, top 100 for the PGA Championship.
That ranking is determined by the Official World Golf Rankings, an organization overseen by members of the majors and primary professional tours — and an organization to which LIV is appealing for accreditation. The Asian Tour, which has received significant funding from LIV Golf, sponsored LIV’s application to the OWGR.
This past Tuesday, OWGR chairman Peter Dawson confirmed that LIV had made its application, saying in a statement, “On 6 July 2022 Official World Golf Ranking received an application from LIV Golf for inclusion in its ranking system. Examination of the application will now commence.”
The ranking points are crucial to LIV’s continued operations; with OWGR points, LIV becomes that much more attractive to prospective new players.
“OWGR points should be granted, and if we get the OWGR points, then everything else takes care of itself,” Norman said in a recent television interview.
One interesting new twist in the LIV/OWGR story arose on Sunday afternoon. Paul Casey, who recently announced his jump to LIV, indicated that several LIV players had contemplated playing on some Asian Tour events to help bolster their own rankings.
“I think the discussion was if guys turn up en masse, then it lifts the World Ranking points,” Casey said. “So if they're going to go play an Asian Tour [event], they all go together.” The OWGR awards points based in part on strength of field; the more highly-ranked players in an event, the more points get awarded to participants in the event.
Such a move would seem to undercut players’ desire to play less while getting paid more, but it would also be, in effect, an end run around current barriers to LIV players’ major qualifications. The OWGR works on a rolling two-year scale; the more points LIV players can amass this year, the further into the future they push the point where playing in LIV tournaments harms their ranking.
LIV has several factors working against its OWGR certification that have nothing to do with the source of its funding. The no-cut format rewards every player in the field, and the invitational framework limits the number of players who can realistically play in LIV events. Plus, many critics don’t regard the 54-hole structure as a “true” test of golf. While none of these individually are deal-breakers, combined they make for a considerable challenge for LIV to overcome.
Will other players jump to LIV?
Still, it’s entirely possible that LIV will meet the OWGR challenge the way it’s recruiting new members: with overwhelming, irresistible force. With the Open Championship in the rear-view mirror, and no majors until the Masters in April 2023, the question now becomes, who will join the LIV Tour?
During the Open, Henrik Stenson — the captain of the 2023 European Ryder Cup team — announced his upcoming schedule as “undecided,” and media reports Sunday night suggested that he was ready to jump to LIV and relinquish the Ryder Cup captaincy. Other rumors running around St. Andrews had notable Ryder Cup players and recent major champions preparing to make the jump in the coming weeks.
Most significant of all, however, was the fact that the current Champion Golfer of the Year, Cam Smith, did not exactly deny that he was going to LIV. Asked if there was any truth to the rumors he would be signing with LIV, Smith replied, “ I just won the British Open, and you're asking about that. I think that's pretty not that good.”
When pressed, Smith added, “My team around me worries about all that stuff. I'm here to win golf tournaments.” As of Monday morning, he had not issued a denial or a clarification. Claiming a reigning major champion — particularly a champion of the British Open, which snubbed Norman earlier this week — would be a substantial coup for LIV.
The LIV Golf tour is scheduled to play at Trump Bedminster in New Jersey next week in what will be its highest-profile event to date. There is as yet no timetable for OWGR to render a decision on whether to award points, or on whether the majors will alter their qualification criteria. For now, LIV will have to wait ... but surely won't be sitting still while doing so.
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.