Thursday, May 23, 2024

‘Room grew quiet’ after what Masters legend said

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Tom Watson only saw unity, conversation and easy laughter among 33 champions at the Masters Club dinner, seven of them now with Saudi-funded LIV Golf. Watson longs for the day golf can feel that way all year long.

Unity is a popular topic at the first major of the year because the PGA Tour has suspended LIV players for defecting to the rival circuit. The only time all the world’s best get together are at the majors, and the Masters is the first chance for that since July.

Watson said he asked Masters chairman Fred Ridley if he could speak toward the end of the Champions Dinner on Tuesday night (US time).

Watch the 2024 US Masters golf live and free on Nine and 9Now from April 12-15.

“I’m looking around the room and I’m seeing just a wonderful experience everybody is having,” Watson, a two-time Masters champion, said from Augusta National, where the 2024 Masters began on Thursday night.

“They are jovial. They are having a great time. They are laughing. And I said, ‘Ain’t it good to be together again?’”

Watson said the room grew quiet and then it was time to leave.

“And in a sense, I hope that the players themselves took that to say, ‘You know, we have to do something’,” Watson said. He paused before repeating, “We have to do something.”

Watson, three-time champion Gary Player and six-time champion Jack Nicklaus were together again on the first tee Thursday night to hit the honourary tee shot, which was delayed by overnight rain.

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They have combined to win 35 majors — Nicklaus and Player own the career grand slam — and are major figures in golf who are among those saddened by the split in in the game as a result of the arrival of LIV Golf. The circuit lured away major champions with guaranteed Saudi riches.

But the Masters Club is a time for celebration. It was said to be like that a year ago with no difference this time around. Most of stories were about Seve Ballesteros because the defending Masters champion is also a Spaniard, Jon Rahm.

There is no indication the two tours are about to come together, even as the PGA Tour negotiates with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia — the money behind LIV — as a minority investor in the new commercial enterprise.

Among the obstacles for unification is a path back to the PGA Tour for LIV players, assuming they all want to return.

“The best outcome is the best players play against each other all the time,” said Nicklaus, who has a stake in golf with his Memorial Tournament.

He said he has spoken with PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and was told the tour was doing fine.

“If Jay thinks we’re doing fine, we’ll get there. I think we’ll get there,” Nicklaus said. “And I certainly hope that happens, the sooner the better.”

Player believes any solution has to include paying players who stayed loyal to the tour.

“You’ve got to get together and come to a solution. If you cannot — it’s not good,” he said. “The public don’t like it, and we as professionals don’t like it, either.”

Listening to the news conference from the front row was former PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem, now an Augusta National member. He retired before the Saudis got involved in golf and has stayed relatively quiet, not willing to offer an opinion.

Finchem was in his first year as commissioner in 1994 when he quickly shot down Greg Norman’s effort to start a world tour. He said in 2010 he could foresee a world tour in the future without knowing what shape it could take.

Rory McIlroy has been among those suggesting a series of tournaments around the world for the top players, and that perhaps any solution with LIV could include that.

Finchem isn’t so sure the fractured landscape will yield any form of a world tour.

“Golf is not much different than it was 10 years ago and it won’t be much different 10 years from now,” Finchem said. “They shouldn’t muck around with it.”

About the only thing everyone can agree on is that having players scattered among different tours and only competing against other four times a year isn’t helping the sport.

“We all know it’s a difficult situation for professional golf right now,” Watson said. “The players really kind of have control, I think, in a sense. What do they want to do? We’ll see where it goes. We don’t have the information or the answers. I don’t think the PGA Tour or the LIV tour really have an answer right now.

“But I think in this room, I know the three of us want to get together,” he said. “We want to get together like we were at that (Masters) Champions Dinner — happy, the best players playing against each other. That’s what we want in professional golf. And right now, we don’t have it.”

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