There’s no longer week in golf than the one leading up to the Masters. No build-up to any tournament is more doused in guff and hokum, no days more filled with hot air than those before the dubiously sainted trio of Player, Nicklaus and Watson get the thing started on Thursday. Grief is the price we pay for love – these few days of scrabbling for content is the price we pay for the Masters.
A few random headlines from around the place, just for a flavour of the hellscape. “Augusta is hallowed ground but where is it most special?” (Golfweek). “Inside the big-money world of Augusta rentals during Masters week” (Golf Digest). “Masters Sunday and Easter coincide for the first time since 2012″ (Augusta Chronicle). None of them made up, each of them a cry for help from everyone involved. A silent scream of, “Please can we just get the golf started? PLEEEEEASE!!”
No surprise then that among the hobby horses making the early running in the 2023 edition is the question of how the TV broadcast of the tournament will treat the 17 LIV golfers in the field. Will they get as much airtime as they would if they were still on the PGA Tour? Will it be like when the Sex Pistols released God Save The Queen and the charts went with a blank space where they should have been? Will they save us all the Butler Cabin nonsense and just post the green jacket out to Cam Smith when it’s all over?
“We’re not gonna show any different treatment for the golfers who have played on the LIV tour than we do the other golfers,” said CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus on a conference call during the week. “If there’s a pertinent point or something that we need to, or we feel that we should bring up in our coverage on Saturday and Sunday, or on our other coverage throughout the week, we’re not gonna put our heads in the sand. Having said that, unless it really affects the story that’s taking place on the golf course we’re not gonna go out of our way to cover it.”
Now, of course, there is a chance that the bould Sean may not be quite telling the whole truth here. The old men of Augusta know what they like in a pre-Masters story – they like it to make Augusta National look like a utopian fever dream. They have limited interest in those stories being overburdened with actual news, never mind controversy. So if there is a policy of not showing the LIV golfers or even of just cutting back the coverage of them the last thing CBS will be doing is saying so in public.
But regardless of what the actual policy is, the fact that it’s even a question worth asking is hilarious in itself. It might be the most golfy conceit imaginable – that a sports broadcast could take itself so seriously it would just pretend that 20 per cent of the field in the biggest tournament of the year simply doesn’t exist. That it’s enough of a possibility for the head of CBS Sports to get a question and not to laugh it out of town tells you all you need to know.
Golf is precious. The Masters is precious squared. If you doubt either of those contentions, just look at the press conference list for next week. Of the 14 players who will do pre-tournament sessions with the media, Smith is the only LIV player to get the call. None of the six past champions are on the list – not Phil Mickelson, not Dustin Johnson, not Bubba or Sergio or Reed or Schwartzel. Golf’s capacity for schoolyard passive aggression remains undefeated.
But even allowing for those reserves of self-importance, deciding that the LIV players are altogether too grubby to show on television would be ludicrous. They’re either in the tournament or they’re not. Since they are, pretending they have some sort of invisibility cloak around them would be profoundly childish.
And if you’re sitting there thinking that all that sportswashing worked a treat, you are perfectly correct. Golf moved on from the Saudi backing for LIV at a breakneck pace. There will be a protest by some of the 9/11 families outside Augusta National next week but that’s more or less the height of it. Nobody asks LIV golfers if they’d play for Putin anymore. Nobody queries the morals of the Majesticks. We can pontificate all we want about it – that’s the reality.
Given that, it would be silly to pretend that the LIV players are some sort of sideline curiosity at this edition of the Masters. Take out the perennial storylines – Rory’s career Grand Slam, Tiger’s bum knee, the brazen madness of Jordan Spieth – and there’s very little next week that will be more compelling than how the LIV guys get on.
So many of them are Augusta specialists. Go through the LIV players in the field and you see a host of names who seem to always contend there. Along with the six past champions and Smith you have Louis Oosthuizen and Brooks Koepka. At least one of the LIV contingent has finished top-five in all but four Masters since the turn of the century. How they measure up this time around is going to be fascinating.
Everything we know about sport tells us they should be rusty as old gates. We know Johnson isn’t the 68th best golfer in the world, as the Official Golf World Rankings have him (the LIV tournaments don’t count towards them). But what should his ranking be? On Thursday morning he will have played 25 rounds of competition golf since last July and he has finished down the field in both the LIV events so far this year. In the normal run of things in any given year he should be in the mix. But we won’t know what the 2023 DJ looks like until we see him.
Which is why it’s such a brainless notion to suggest cutting the LIV players out. If the host broadcaster had any wit (or autonomy, for that matter), they’d go the other way entirely. Lean into it. Make the featured groups LIV players only. Play Money by Pink Floyd every time they make a birdie and let cartoon oil/blood pour down the screen as you fade to the next shot, with the whizz of a bonesaw playing lightly on the breeze.
Bit farfetched? Maybe. But it makes just as much sense as pretending they’re not there.