As a self-confessed sports junkie, the Gregorian calendar can just as easily be reduced to the major sporting events within it. January is the NFL Playoffs, Masters Snooker and the Australian Open in Tennis. February is the Superbowl, and the early stages of the GAA National League and Six-Nations. March sees their conclusion, Cheltenham, and the Players Championship, and then the Masters in April.
I could go on, but you get the drift. Of course, some are more important than others, but personally speaking, with the possible exception of the All-Ireland Football Final, everything pales in comparison to golf’s four majors. And if I’m really being honest – and this is personal opinion of course – the rest of those pale in comparison to The Masters.
Weddings, Christenings, Bar Mitzvahs, everything takes a back seat as I plan some quality time with my couch and remote control, safe in the knowledge that Alistair MacKenzie’s pristine canvas rarely fails to showcase artistry and drama at its finest.
Far from bastions of human rights – their history of racial and gender discrimination has been well documented – Augusta National and its green-jacketed members have at least taken certain proactive measures to correct the errors of the past. Besides, few current members will recall Clifford Roberts’ – Augusta National founder and long-time chairman – death in 1977 and fewer still his earlier assertion that as long as he’s alive, all Augusta’s “golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black”.
That Roberts co-founded the club in the 1930s, more than 20-years before Rosa Parks refused to relinquish her bus seat to a white man, in no way excuses his sentiment, but it does make it a lot less surprising.
My main reason in highlighting this is to show that my love for The Masters is in spite of the club’s history, not because of it, and human rights abuse has been an extremely hot-topic in the world of professional golf of late.
The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Investments tour may have suffered a setback in the wake of Phil Mickelson’s ill-judged “scary motherf***ers” comments, but it’s become blatantly clear that that’s all it was, a setback.
Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau are back in again, Ian Poulter, Lee Westwood and Graeme McDowell were never out, and as each new defector is announced, it becomes easier for the next guy to jump ship. And make no mistake, they will desert the PGA Tour like rats on a sinking ship. Why? Well, because it IS a sinking ship.
Why have the Saudis gone after golf? Why not soccer? It is the most widely played sport in the world after all. Tennis? Volleyball? Cricket? Well, it’s because golf was there for the taking. The PGA Tour – and others, but as the market leader, the Tour has to take the lion’s share of the blame – has allowed its product to become stale, with way too many tournaments, way too many players involved, and way too many commercials interrupting the broadcasts. Oh, and if you think we get it bad on Sky Sports, spare a thought for American viewers who probably have twice the amount of ad breaks.
Rory McIlroy – one of the few genuinely charismatic superstars in the game – winning the RBC Canadian Open in dramatic fashion may have been the perfect response to Greg Norman and co.’s damp squib in London, but what happens if DJ and Bryson duel it out down the stretch in Portland in a fortnight while Troy Merritt is running away with the John Deere Classic? Rory is not going to be riding in on his white horse every week and as the LIV train rolls on, it’ll pick up steam.
It has to. Despite having Greg Norman – a man whose ego made him a pariah within the locker room – at the helm, despite having a marketing and PR team who’ve tripped over themselves repeatedly with idiotic slogans such as “Shot just got real” and “Golf, but louder” in an attempt to make golf hip and trendy – I love golf, but let’s face it, “hip” and “trendy” it is not – and a team aspect that nobody will ever really care about, they will continue to bolster their ranks with each passing tournament.
They just have too much money at their disposal not to. McIlroy’s on-course earnings, endorsements, and investments mean that it’s highly unlikely that he, or several generations of ancestors will ever have to worry about financial well-being, but it still takes a lot to say no to the kind of guaranteed cash that’s being offered by LIV Golf and I’d suspect that Rory’s hard and fast stance against it will make him an outlier in years to come as Greg Norman’s roster gets stronger and stronger.
The more I look at it, the more I see the major championships as the last real hope, but as sacrosanct as we’d wish them to be, the truth is that the majors’ status is fickle. Prior to LIV’s arrival, and The Players Championship aside, the majors are the most lucrative single tournaments on the calendar, offer unrivalled job security and guaranteed trickle-down income for years to follow.
Augusta National may decide that anybody who’s sold their soul to the Saudis is no longer welcome down Magnolia Lane. That’d rule out seven of the last 12 Masters winners, providing Bubba Watson follows Mickelson et al – highly likely given Bubba’s image is being used in promotional material for the League. When the Green Jackets talk, players listen.
But for how much longer?
Not having the allegedly fit and healthy current PGA Champion in the field devalued this year’s Masters ever so slightly, as it did the PGA Championship a month later, but take another three or four of the best players in the game and it’s devalued massively.
And what’s to stop LIV holding their own major opposite and putting a couple of hundred million into the prize pool? It’d never be the Masters, but it would still cast an unavoidable shadow over the real thing.
History matters, but the history books are constantly being re-written. Golf’s major championship landscape as we know it, wasn’t always as it is today. Prior to The Masters conception, it was the US Open, US Amateur, The Open and The British Amateur Championships that were the pinnacle of the sport. The Western Open and the World Championship of Golf were both seen as major events in their own right, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the majors as we know them were largely agreed upon.
There are many reasons to dislike what’s happening to the game, even without a murderous, despotic regime in the background, but, in a sporting sense, taking the shine off that second Sunday in April would be the greatest crime of all.