The 2024 Masters: Fore! Days Of Peace

After a stormy morning that delayed first tee until just after 10 am Eastern, as this being written the 2024 Masters is finally under way.  From first glance, it would appear the storm clouds of the earlier hours are gone.  The sun is shining, the birds are chirping, and you can practically hear the theme .

In fact, why not actually hear it.  It might be necessary for you to digest all the drama going on behind the scenes that don’t involve putts and drives.  As the WASHINGTON POST’s Rick Maese wrote yesterday:

This week, 13 LIV players will compete at the Masters with their PGA Tour counterparts, distinguishable only by the LIV team gear they’ll be sporting on golf’s most hallowed grounds — Sergio García, the Fireball; Bubba Watson, the RangeGoat. And for four days, fans will be reminded both of what today’s game isn’t — a unified tour where the best players consistently play against one another — and what they hope it might again become.

The topic du jour is sustainability — or, rather, the perceived unsustainability of the current landscape, which has the world’s best pros competing on separate tours, their much-anticipated alliance still up in the air, and a sport enjoying surging participation but fearing a decline in fan interest.

“Things need a correction,” Rory McIlroy, one of the faces of the PGA Tour, said last week in Texas, “and things are unsustainable.” ” I just think with the fighting and everything that’s went on over the past couple years, people are just getting really fatigued of it, and it’s turning people off men’s professional golf,” McIlroy told reporters last week. “And that’s not a good thing for anyone.”

“And it needs to happen fast,” Bryson DeChambeau, the LIV Golf star, said in Florida. “It’s not a two-year thing. It needs to happen quicker rather than later just for the good of the sport. Too many people are losing interest.”

The issue of perceived unsustainability was taken head on by DeChambeau’s fellow LIV “defector” Brooks Koepka in remarks reported by Joshua Lees and Graeme Young in THE DAILY RECORD today:

Koepka, a five-time major champion, is among 13 LIV Golf players participating at Augusta National this week, marking a notable gathering with PGA Tour regulars such as Rory McIlroy and Scottie Scheffler since last year’s Open Championship. The captain of Smash GC, Koepka switched to the controversial LIV series in June 2022, joining other high-profile golfers like Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, and Jon Rahm. The launch of the Saudi-funded LIV Golf has seemingly created a rift within the sport.

Despite perceptions, Koepka contends that even before LIV Golf’s inception, the frequency of top players competing together on the PGA Tour was already limited. When asked if he missed playing in the top-tier events of the PGA Tour with the likes of McIlroy, Koepka said: “I mean I think that’s subjective. Look, the best players in the world never got together week in, week out. I think that’s kind of forgotten.”, reports the Mirror.

So much for the quality issue.  And as for the acrimony, Garcia offered these views to Thomas Bristow of THE IRISH MIRROR:

Sergio Garcia has hit out at the media for creating a divide between PGA Tour and LIV Golf players – and believes the game is in a ‘perfect’ spot.

A framework agreement was announced between the two organisations last year, putting an end to the sport’s civil war. But tensions still remain and the best players in the world are no longer regularly facing off against each other. 

At the Masters, the first major of the year, LIV rebels and PGA stars unite once again to create a star-studded field. It is something players on both sides want more often, with a unified playing field.

But when asked if he feels the same, Garcia seemed to suggest there’s no issue at all. “I think the game is in a perfect spot,” he replied. “The professional game, maybe it’s a little more separated, mostly because of the media, not so much because of the players. But I think the game itself is in a great spot.”

The LIV tour has been divisive largely because of the source of the largesse that it has bestowed on its participants.  With financial backing from the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia (PIF), it is a politically supercharged issue that detractors assert is classic sportswashing.  But last year the intention of a settlement was announced, with the PIF purpotedly intending to invest significantly in the PGA.  In fact, this very space covered the news in detail when it was announced last June.  But here we are ten months later, and still no official deal is in place.

My sense is that it’s now impatience more than politics that has the mood in Augusta as leaden as the skies were earlier today.  People with money and intentions are never unwelcome.  People who don’t make good on their promises?  That’s another story.

During yesterday’s practice round Garcia was paired with 2023 champion Jon Rahm, who is now one of the LIV golfers.  They sure seemed amicable.

And as for the media’s impatience?  Well, that too seems to be driven by something other than ideology.  As Maese went on to detail:

Because the game’s top players haven’t competed against one another in an individual event since last year’s British Open, fans have endured lackluster tournament fields and forgettable Sunday finishes. While LIV’s linear TV ratings aren’t publicized, LIV officials say their numbers on the CW Network are up 40 percent from last year and they’re pleased with early streaming viewership. The PGA Tour’s TV figures, which includes a much larger audience domestically, are down more than 15 percent.

Buried farther down in the details are the stark contrasts between the relative popularities:

LIV’s season debut in Mexico marked its highest TV numbers to date — 432,000 watched on the CW for the final round, and more than 3.5 million streamed some portion of the three-day event on YouTube or LIV’s app. The final round of last year’s Masters, won by Jon Rahm, averaged more than 12 million viewers.

But no less an authority than the guy about to executive produce his final Masters is also asserting that there’s much less to see than some may contend:

Ratings fluctuate from year to year,” said Sean McManus, head of CBS Sports. “As we all know, to a large extent, it depends on who is on the leader board and how close the tournament is. … But the advertisers seem happy, the sponsors seem happy, so it’s a little early to predict where there is a trend out there on the ratings.”

And this weekend, with relative harmony, Rahm and Koepka will be reexposed to a much larger audience.  Putting aside whatever differences might still be bubbling.

Let’s not forget the color of the jacket everyone’s chasing. 

Courage….

 

 

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