GORDON SEAY PHOTO
By TOM LaMARRE
Augusta National Golf Club has welcomed back 18 players who jumped from the PGA Tour to LIV Golf to the 87th Masters.
That includes former Masters champions Cameron Smith of Australia, Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia of Spain, Bubba Watson, Charl Schwartzel of South Africa and Patrick Reed, who made things interesting at the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night.
“We will invite those eligible under our current criteria to compete in the 2023 Masters Tournament,” Tournament Chairman Fred Ridley said in a statement earlier this year. “Regrettably, recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it. Although we are disappointed in these developments, our focus is to honor the tradition of bringing together a preeminent field of golfers in coming April.”
LIV golfers also competed in the 2022 U.S. Open and Open Championship last year, but there are questions about what might happen in coming seasons.
The other LIV golfers who are playing in the Masters this week include Abraham Ancer of Mexico, Bryson DeChambeau, Talor Gooch, Brooks Koepka, Jason Kokrak, Kevin Na, Joaquin Niemann of Chile, Louis Oosthuizen of South Africa, Thomas Pieters of Belgium, Mito Pereira of Chile and Harold Varner III.
LIV Golf is financed by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund and many top PGA Tour decided to defect to receive huge contract offers in the last couple of years.
Defending Masters champion Scottie Scheffler (pictured), who seems to be the favorite, doesn’t expect a big problem.
“Gathering all those guys together in a room, I mean, it should be a lot of fun,” Scheffler said recently about the two sides since coming together again. ”It’s a historic group of people, Masters champions, and I’m sure that we’ll all put our personal opinions aside and just have a good night and just kind of enjoy what the night really is.”
Everything seemed to go well on the practice tee, where some of the players had not seen each other in the last year or so because of the split.
Some players shook hands and actually hugged each other.
“I spent probably an hour out on the range already this afternoon,” said Smith, who still is No. 6 in the World Golf Rankings despite his defection. “It was good to see some familiar faces. Lots of laughs and lots of handshakes, and it was really nice. … I didn’t want to expect too much but at the same time, I kind of wanted that, not only for myself but just for the game of golf. I think there’s a lot of stuff going on at the moment that doesn’t need to be going on, especially in the media. I think it’s definitely wound up a little bit too much.
“For me, personally, I have another set of clothes made up this week without [LIV logos]. We haven’t really heard much from Augusta National about the logos, and for me personally, I’m really proud of where I’m at and what I’m doing. Unless it’s a problem for these guys, I’m going to wear it.”
Said Dustin Johnson, the 2020 Masters champion: “I still play golf for a living. I’m here at the Masters and enjoying this week. This week’s all about Augusta. It has nothing to do with where you play at, but guys who are here, they play all around the world. Not everybody just plays on one spot. For me, like I said, all my buddies are still my buddies. Enjoy seeing them. It’s nice to see a lot of the guys because I haven’t seen them all that much. So it should be a great week and looking forward to it.”
Another big story this week is that Tiger Woods, who claimed his fifth Masters title in 2019, is here after nursing a right leg injury that nearly forced an amputation after his rollover SUV accident a little more than two years ago in Southern California.
Fred Couples, the 1992 Masters champion, played a practice round with Woods on Monday and liked what he saw.
“How did he hit it?” Couples said when asked about Woods. “He hit it really, really well. He pulled a couple of drives. Last year when we played, he never missed a shot. I’ve never seen anything like it. Physically, I don’t ask him a lot. When he tells you I’m only going to play four events and Augusta’s one of them, he’s ready to go. It’s not going to be easy, but I think he’ll be fine. The leg is I guess, it is what it is. I don’t know how much better it’s ever going to get. He’s strong enough to hit it a mile. He’s not hitting it as far as Rory (McIlroy) is, but not many people are.”
This should be an interesting week, in more ways than one.
1. Scottie Scheffler, United States – The top-ranked Scheffler will try to become the first back-to-back winner of the Masters since Tiger Woods in 2001-02, after beating Rory McIlroy by three strokes last year. He tied for 19th in 2020 and tied for 18th a year later in his first two appearances at Augusta. His first major title is one of six wins he claimed since early last year.
2. Rory McIlroy, Northern Ireland – Rory will make his eighth attempt to complete the Career Grand Slam since winning his fourth major title in the 2014 PGA. He finished second last year and has seven top-10 results in the first major of the season. McIlroy won the Dubai Desert Classic in January for his 36th pro title and also tied for second in the Arnold Palmer Invitational.
3. Jon Rahm, Spain – The third-ranked Rahm has claimed three of his 10 PGA Tour victories this year and has four other results in the top 10. His only Grand Slam victory came in the 2021 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines, but he has nine top-10 finishes in the majors including solo a fourth in 2018, a tie for ninth in 2019, a tie for seventh in 2020 and a tie for fifth in 2021 at the Masters.
4. Justin Thomas, United States – Although the 10th-ranked Thomas has not won the Masters, he has six top-25 finishes at Augusta, including fourth in 2020 and a tie for eighth last year. The two-time PGA Championship winner, who has seven top-10 finishes in the majors, was fourth in Phoenix, tied for fifth in the Hero World Challenge and tied for 10th in the Valspar this season.
5. Cameron Smith, Australia – Even though he has moved on to LIV Golf, Smith remains No. 6 in the world, thanks to his victories in the 2022 Players and Open Championship. He has recorded four top-10 finishes in the Masters, including a tie for second in 2020, a tie for third last year, a tie for fifth in 2018 and a tie for 10th in 2021. Won the Australian PGA in November.
6. Dustin Johnson, United States – One of six Masters champions who have jumped to LIV Golf, the former No. 1 has slid to No. 69 in the world rankings as a result. DJ captured the 2022 LIV Invitational Boston and has eight top-10 results on the new tour. Johnson also won the 2016 PGA Championship and has 22 top-10 finishes in the major, including five runner-up results.
7. Max Homa, United States – The fifth-ranked Homa has claimed six PGA Tour victories since 2019, but still is seeking his first major title. In fact, his best result in the major was a tie for 13th in the 2022 PGA Championship, but he is a different player with six finishes in the top 10 this season, including victories in the Fortinet Championship and the Farmers Insurance Open.
8. Jason Day, Australia – The former No. 1 player in the world has bounced back from injuries with eight results in the top 25 this season, including six in the top 10, and tied for fifth recently in WGC-Match Play. Day has 17 titles as a pro, including the 2015 PGA Championship at Whistling Straits. He has 16 top-10 major results, including a tie for second in the 2011 Masters.
9. Xander Schauffele, United States – The seventh-ranked Schauffele has 10 victories as a pro, but has yet to break through in the majors. Not that he hasn’t been close, posting nine top-10 finishes in the Grand Events since 2017. He came closest when he finished one stroke behind Tiger Woods in the 2019 Masters and also tied for second in the 2018 Open at Carnoustie.
10. Jordan Spieth, United States – The 2015 Masters champion, a three-time major winner, is another player coming off a slump, having recorded six top-10 finishes this season, including third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational and fourth in the Valspar. Spieth won the Masters by four, the U.S. Open by one that year, the Open in 2017 and has 13 top-10 results in the majors.
OTHER PLAYERS TO WATCH: Tiger Woods, United States; Hideki Matsuyama, Japan; Collin Morikawa, United States; Sungjae Im, South Africa; Viktor Hovland, Norway; Patrick Cantlay, United States; Tom Kim, South Korea; Sam Burns, United States; Brooks Koepka, United States; Matt Fitzpatrick, England; Patrick Reed, United States; Sergio Garcia, Spain.
1. Sahith Theegala, United States – The former Pepperdine star has 10 top-10 finishes in his first two seasons on the PGA Tour and is making his debut appearance in the Masters this week.
2. Adam Svenson, Canada – Four-time champion as a pro, including the 2022 RSM Classic, Svenson makes his major championship debut this week after a T-9 at Riviera, T-13 in Players.
3. Sepp Straka, Austria – Two-time winner as a pro, Straka lost in playoff at Sanderson Farms among five top-25s this season. Finished T-30 in his debut at Augusta National last season.
4. K.H. Lee, South Korea – The six-time pro champion, including two on the PGA Tour, has six T-20 finishes on the PGA Tour in the last two seasons, including solo third in the 2022 CJ Cup.
5. Kurt Katayama, United States – Won Arnold Palmer Invitational last month, finished second in CJ Cup and was T-5 in WGC-Match Play this season. Katayama is making his Masters debut.
For first-round tee times visit: https://www.pgatour.com/leaderboard