When Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley was asked about the rise of “rival golf leagues” in a press conference at the 2022 Masters, he did not exactly take out his flamethrower.
“What is your stance on that?” SI.com’s Bob Harig asked Ridley about the threat of upstart tours, the most prominent of which at that point was LIV Golf, which had announced an eight-tournament schedule for 2022 if not yet any signees. “Have you spoken to any players about their possible involvement in those leagues? Would you be opposed to that? And could it even preclude them from being invited here if they were to go down that road?”
Ridley’s response in full: “I would start by saying that our mission is always to act in the best interests of the game in whatever form that may take. I think that golf’s in a good place right now. There’s more participation. Purses on the professional tours are the highest they have ever been. Clubs and courses I think are in healthy financial positions.
“You know, the youth that are emerging at a competitive level is just amazing. I mean, the top four players in the world are under 30. I think seven of the top 10 are under 30.
“We have been pretty clear in our belief that the world tours have done a great job in promoting the game over the years. Beyond that, there’s so much that we don’t know about what might happen or could happen that I just don’t think, Bob, I could say much more beyond that.”
But according to allegations in a complaint filed earlier this week by 11 LIV Golf signees, Ridley, in fact, could have said more, because by that point in early April, the suit alleges, Augusta National wasn’t only keenly aware of the threat that LIV Golf posed to the PGA Tour but the club also had already taken significant actions to try to thwart the fledgling league.
In February, the complaint alleges, “Augusta National representatives threatened to disinvite players from The Masters if they joined LIV Golf. In addition, Augusta National Chairman Fred Ridley personally instructed a number of participants in the 2022 Masters not to play in the LIV Golf Invitational Series. Plainly, these threats to top players served no beneficial purpose, as they would only serve to weaken the field in the Masters.”
The complaint doesn’t say which Augusta National players allegedly threatened, but three-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson seemingly wasn’t one of them.
By Masters week, Mickelson hadn’t yet publicly stated his intentions to sign with LIV Golf but he was presumed to be on the LIV short list and also embroiled in controversy for having revealed his plans to use LIV to gain leverage on the PGA Tour. The fallout from those comments led to Mickelson taking leave from the PGA Tour.
When asked about Mickelson’s absence at the 2022 Masters, Ridley said in that same Masters-week press conference that the club “did not disinvite Phil.”
“Phil reached out to me, I think it was in late February, early March, and let me know that he did not intend to play,” Ridley said. “That was by way of a text. And I thanked him for his courtesy in letting me know. I told him that we certainly appreciated that and, you know, told him that I was certainly willing to discuss that further with him if he’d like, and he thanked me, and we had a very cordial exchange.”
Mickelson’s seed not voluntarily withdrawn from the tournament, would he have been disinvited? It’s a reasonable question to ask, but also not one which Augusta National seems willing to answer.
The club did not respond to a request for comment, either in relation to that question or other specific queries about the allegations cited in the suit.
Another reasonable question to ponder, especially in light of Augusta National’s alleged LIV offensive, is why Mickelson turned up to the first LIV Golf event in London wearing a vest emblazoned with an Augusta National logo. Was it a not-so-subtle jab at the club? That is, of course, not a question for Augusta National but for Mickelson.
If Ridley was open to talking to Mickelson as LIV was coming to fruition, the chairman was not interested in engaging with LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman, according to the complaint. The complaint alleges that when Norman asked Ridley for a meeting so Norman could explain “LIV Golf’s business model and discuss how LIV Golf could operate in the existing professional golf world, Mr. Ridley declined the invitation – another example of LIV Golf trying to work with existing golf entities and being turned away before even getting to show them what LIV Golf is all about.”
Even after the Masters concluded, the complaint alleges, Augusta National continued trying to influence players’ decisions about signing with LIV. Soon after LIV announced the field for its first event, the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council held an emergency meeting at which Augusta National representatives were in attendance, the suit alleges. The complaint goes on: “They informed the golfers in attendance that the PGA Tour and Augusta National had agreed to work together to address LIV Golf. As described above, the threat of exclusion from the Masters (and the other Majors) is a powerful weapon in the Tour’s arsenal to deter players from joining LIV Golf.”
If this claim is true, it’s significant, because Augusta National has not publicly admonished or distanced itself from LIV Golf, at least not with unequivocal language. If the club has been working as closely with the PGA Tour as the suit alleges, it would suggest that Augusta National might be willing to ban or disinvite contracted LIV players from participating in the 2023 Masters.
So far, a half-dozen green-jacket winners – Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Charl Schwartzel and Bubba Watson – have signed with LIV, and who knows how many more might follow. Excluding that group from next year’s tournament would be a loss not only for the players but also for fans and the lore and charm of the tournament itself; arguably the only winner would be Scottie Scheffler, who would escape with one of the lightest Champions Dinner bills in recent memory.
As for the LIV players who aren’t past Masters champions? They will need to qualify through their world-ranking status.
That’s increasingly becoming an issue for those players given LIV has not yet been accredited by the Official World Golf Ranking. LIV applied for accreditation on July 6, but the process can take up to two years, meaning Masters hopefuls collecting LIV paychecks theoretically could be shut out of golf’s most prestigious invitational until 2024. Oh, and for what’s it worth, yes, Augusta National also has juice at the OWGR, with Buzzy Johnson, the Masters’ senior director, holding a seat on the OWGR’s governing board.
Augusta National only plays a small role in the 105-page complaint from the LIV players, but the allegations within provide rare insight into the club’s outsize influence in the upper rungs of the game.
Indeed, even LIV’s merchandising efforts were indirectly impacted by Augusta National, the complaint alleges.
“LIV Golf tried to order custom hats through American Needle hat company,” the suit reads, “and American needle informed LIV Golf that it does not want to do business with LIV Golf because of its relationship with the PGA Tour and Augusta National.”