I’ve been to a few gatherings of splintered families–you know, weddings, B’nai Mitzvahs, graduation ceremonies, even funerals. It’s usually very uncomfortable for everyone regardless of their connection to the honored. These sorts of things exacerbate long-simmering emotions and differences, and the underlying tone surrounding the event is one of a powderkeg with a fuse sitting squarely in the path of a beating sun, capable of triggering an explosion at any second.
That’s essentially the temperature in the room that’s been underlying the events leading up to this year’s Masters, which teed off this morning. As USA Today’s Lorenzo Reyes reported yesterday, the fact that this year’s field includes an unprecedented “reunion”, it has set a tone that has polarized both fans and the competitors:
As golf’s prized major is set to begin, 18 LIV golfers have accepted invitations to the Masters, including six past winners who were present at Tuesday night’s Champions Dinner. The decision has been criticized from many who feel Augusta National is offering legitimacy to LIV Golf and supporting the Saudi government, which has a track record of human rights violations.
In December 2022, Augusta National issued a statement in which it made clear that all players eligible to receive invitations under current criteria, including LIV Golf players, would be offered the chance to compete in the Masters.
But that doesn’t mean that any olive branch is in sight. Indeed, there was already one notable snub, as Reyes continued:
Augusta National Golf Club chair Fred Ridley confirmed LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman was not invited to attend the Masters in an attempt to limit distractions about the Saudi-funded league that has lured away dozens of PGA Tour members.
“We did not extend an invitation to Mr. Norman,” Ridley said Wednesday during a news conference. “The primary issue and the driver there is that I want the focus this week to be on the Masters competition, on the great players that are participating, the greatest players in the world, which, by our decision in December, we ensured that we were going to honor and be consistent with our invitation criteria.”
And the pairings themselves underscore the degree of animosity that exists among the field. As ESPN’s Paola Maggetti details:
On Tuesday, Augusta National — which, alongside the R&A, did not make a representative available for this story — released the long-awaited pairings for the first major involving both tours. LIV players were notably not paired with one another save for one exception: Jason Kokrak and Talor Gooch. Only Cameron Smith (who is the sixth-ranked player in the world) was paired with another top-20 player — Sungjae Im — but neither Smith nor any other LIV players will be in the featured groups.
That’s the equivalent of putting the family of the ex-spouse at tables near the kitchen or in front of the band versus nearer to the dance floor or the dais. Back when people had affairs that I was actually invited to, I often wound up at those kind of tables myself. A lot of drinks were consumed. A lot of bitching about family dysfunction was conveyed to me, whether I actually wanted to hear it or not.
And thanks to some continuing torch-carrying by the likes of USA Today’s Christine Brennan such as this regurgitation of views she used her pulpit to express while LIV was being created, its tournaments were being conducted in venues like Trump National and while negotiations were occurring for their coverage that also dropped yesterday, I suspect a disproportionate amount of alcohol was consumed at those dinners this week:
Augusta National Golf Club was very pleased to display a photo of its Masters Champions Dinner Tuesday night on social media for all the world to see. Thirty-four men in green jackets, decades worth of Masters champions surrounding club chairman Fred Ridley, all of them smiling for the camera enjoying a celebration of the most famous brotherhood in golf.
You know who else was especially thrilled to see that photo spreading across the globe?
Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, the mastermind of the killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, as well as his golf-bro buddies in the kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the nation responsible for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States nearly 22 years ago and the abysmal human rights violations against women and the LGBTQ community in particular to this day..
It also was a picture of something else: Sportswashing. That photo is the textbook definition of the word. By allowing the six Masters champions who escaped to LIV, and the 12 other LIV golfers who met the qualifications to be in the 88-player field, Augusta National has done something both historic and repulsive: it is legitimizing, even dignifying, LIV Golf.
Brennan pressed this issue at Ridley’s press conference yesterday, relentlessly tearing into him with anecdotes about families of 9/11 victims who have tugged on her heartstrings to make their impassioned case that, decades after their loss, absolutely no one on Earth who believes that anyone associated with anything remotely related to Al Queda has the right to pursue any path that could improve their lot in life. Take full advantage of their G-d-given talents to a level that the PGA cannot and will not guarantee.
Phil Mickelson has many issues, but he also has a right to take care of his family as he sees to. So does Brooks Koepka, who earned the right to be in the Masters with four tour wins in 2022. Frankly, Norman’s contributions to the PGA as a player and, later, as a TV analyst should have at least warranted an invite. Hell, I had to sit next to a convicted felon at a rehearsal dinner. I can’t imagine Norman would have truly caused the kind of stir that Ridley feared. But it’s his party, his rules.
And it’s not Christine Brennan’s place to bludgeon this issue as relentlessly as she has, and it’s disingenous for USA Today to provide her a pulpit to do so. You made your point, Christine. Life goes on. Yes, 9/11 was a tragedy. It’s 22 years. People have moved on from more personal murders quicker. A generation is growing up that has no memory of it. It was not the Holocaust. Let it GO.
Harold Varner III is one of the 18 LIV golfers who is in the field. Varner defected last summer, so he hasn’t played in all that many events to date. And he’s not a champion. Fortunately, The Washington and New York Posts gave Varner a chance to express his views. Here’s some of what Varner offered as to why he’s where he is, both this week and for the balance of this year:
Harold Varner did not hold back with his gripes about his employer.
When Varner left the PGA Tour to join LIV Golf last August, he said it was “too good a financial breakthrough” to pass up.
“The truth is, my life is changing,” he wrote in a statement posted in Instagram. “The opportunity to join LIV Golf is simply too good of a financial breakthrough for me to pass by. I know what it means to grow up without much. This money is going to ensure that my kid and future Varners will have a solid base to start on.
Your opinion of me may change because of this announcement. No lie, that’ll be a tough thing to deal with. But I haven’t changed – I’m still me. I promise you that.”
He said when he joined LIV it’s public relations officials sent him the same talking points, and he ignored them.
“I play golf so I can change the direction of my family’s life,” Varner said. “And that’s it.”
Varner, too, dispelled any notion that there would be any bad blood between LIV players and those from the PGA Tour.
“These f—ers aren’t mad,” he said of the PGA Tour players. “They’re just mad that you’re f—ing with their money. I think some people are jealous, and that’s just the way it is.”
Harold Varner III actually got a reasonably decent teeoff time, after lunch Eastern time, About halfway between Tiger Woods and Rory McIlory, neither of whom are likely to spend much time with him this week. He’s not a favorite, and he may not make it to Saturday. The weather forecast is awful for this weekend, so if Varner doesn’t make the cut he’d be best served to get out of Augusta as soon as possible, if only to escape the weather and the climate that has castigated him for having the opinions he has.
I’m rooting for him. I’m rooting for anyone who wants to better themselves.
And I sure hope when the inevitable next round of cutbacks at the dying USA Today occur, Christine Brennan is deemed expendable.
Until next time…