AUGUSTA (Ga.) -- The mystery began last spring in earnest and continued until the autumn twilight. Phil Mickelson, one of the most prominent faces for LIV Golf - the league backed by Saudi Arabia's sovereign fund - insists he thought he could play in the 2023 Masters Tournament. The tournament opens on Thursday.
No need to worry about the discomfort or the fact that on-course rivalries have evolved into long-distance rages tinged with politics, power and pride. Mickelson argued that tradition would win out at Augusta National Golf Club. It was one of the safest bets in sports.
In an interview with Mickelson last month, a 3-time Masters champion, Mickelson said: 'The history and the majors are about bringing together the best players, so it needs to rise above disruptions in the golf ecosystem.'
Mickelson said he was not worried. He spent the 2022 Masters on a self-imposed exile from sport after he downplayed Saudi Arabia’s human rights violations. He admitted that 'there were talks' about exclusion from the most prestigious golf event.
Augusta National put an end to the talk about the Masters on December 20. If a golfer had qualified through a familiar pathway, such as being a previous champion, he would receive his invitation for 2023.
Weather permitting, the club's selection will be infused into its grounds until at least Sunday when the tournament is set to end. The usual narratives surrounding a major event are bubbling up: Will Scottie Schneffler be the first winner to repeat in over two decades? Rory McIlroy could complete his career Grand Slam. Can Jon Rahm return to his dominating winter form? What will Tiger Woods, as always, do?
There is also a subcurrent of ambition, curiosity, and a gentility-cloaked discord.
LIV will experience a major breakthrough if a player from the league wins the green jacket. The Masters provides the PGA Tour with an opportunity to show that their 72-hole version of an ancient game still reigns supreme. Augusta National can use the Masters to portray itself as a golf club that is above the chaos.
Fred S. Ridley said, 'At Champions Dinner, I wouldn't have known anything else was happening in the world professional golf than what is normal,' the day following the annual gathering of Masters past winners.
He said: "I'm hoping that people will think differently this week and change their ways."
This week was not going to be a brawl, as it seemed certain. Some players complained that the media was hyper-focused on potential tensions, and admitted they had also wondered about the mood and considered the stakes of their tours.
Cameron Smith, ranked No. The highest-ranked LIV golfer, No. 6, said that PGA Tour players had greeted with hugs and handshakings. When asked what he was expecting, he said: "I wasn't sure to be honest.
He was more confident that LIV would benefit from a strong performance on the leaderboards surrounding Augusta National’s venerable stage.
He said: 'It's important that LIV guys be there, because I believe we need to be there.' I think that there is a lot said about how these guys do not play golf on real courses. Sure, I will be the first to admit that the fields aren’t as strong. I'm not the only one who says that. But we still have a number of players up there who can play some serious golf.
Rory McIlroy has been hailed as a saint by PGA Tour executives because of his steadfast defence of their circuit. He said that the Masters is 'way more' than the golfing spat, and he was excited to face 18 LIV golfers who are some of the best golfers in the world. He said that being around them again can help build rapport. However, he did acknowledge that restored proximity is not a guarantee for perpetual harmony.
McIlroy stated that the situation was nuanced and had different dynamics. McIlroy said: "You know, you can get along with Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson and the other LIV stars, major winners." And maybe not get along with some other boys who went to LIV.
Augusta National has tried to reduce theatrics. Its private membership list is thought to include two former secretaries.
The groupings on Thursday and Friday seem to be the least interesting, at the very least when compared with the PGA Tour vs. LIV. Woods and Bryson deChambeau will not be reunited at the first tee. DeChambeau recently claimed that Woods was excommunicating him. Fred Couples is scheduled to join Russell Henley, Alex Noren, and Sergio Garcia, a PGA Tour fanatic who has called Mickelson a nutbag and Sergio Garcia a clown. McIlroy will be grouped with Tom Kim and Sam Burns.
Ridley also said that Augusta National has not invited Greg Norman to the club where leaders from the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, and LIV have been in recent days.
Ridley stated that he wanted the Masters to be the main focus of the week. He said that he thought Norman had been to the Masters twice in the past decade, one as a radio commentary.
Ridley avoided a question about whether Augusta National was complicit in'sportswashing Saudi Arabia's' image.
Ridley replied, 'I have a good understanding of what the term means.' I think it's up to others to determine what exactly that term means. They were individual decisions made by these players that I don't necessarily support.
The tournament is set to start Thursday morning. This week, the focus has shifted rapidly from the competition itself. The American broadcasters of the event are unlikely to focus on anything other than golf unless it is absolutely necessary.
Sean McManus is the chairman of CBS Sports which will be broadcasting the third and fourth round on Saturday and Sunday. We won't go out of our ways to cover the story unless it's really important to the story on the course. I don't think there's much we can add to it.
ESPN, who will broadcast the first two rounds of the tournament, has indicated that it is less interested in golf’s geopolitical drama. Curtis Strange said that he did not'see' us mention the Roman numerals.
He said: "We must respect the Masters Tournament." The only way I can see something coming up - and that's not to mention LIV - is if some of these players don't have a lot of experience playing competitive golf. How sharp can these players be?
Golfers from LIV have claimed that they are ready for Augusta, despite having played 54-hole tournaments instead of 72 on courses that many doubted would be able to prepare them for Augusta.
This year's event will be more of a test than usual because of this dynamic. There is always next season: Augusta National's Masters entry criteria were released on Wednesday. The changes did not immediately threaten LIV players.