AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — Masters Chairman Fred Ridley sat among 33 champions in green jackets at golf’s most exclusive dinner. It was a time to celebrate Scottie Scheffler as the most recent winner, to share laughs, memories and even a few tears.
That’s how it is every year at Augusta National.
“I would not have known that anything was going on in the world of professional golf other than the norm,” Ridley said on the eve of a Masters unlike any other. “So I think — and I’m hopeful — that this week might get people thinking in a little bit different direction and things will change.”
There’s a full menu of activity at this Masters.
Tiger Woods returns for his 25th appearance with hopes his course knowledge can compensate for battered legs as he pursues another green jacket. Rory McIlroy gets another crack at the one major that keeps him from the career Grand Slam. No one has won the Masters back-to-back since Woods in 2002, and with Scheffler the No. 1 player in the world, he has an excellent chance.
The forecast is for the weather to turn nasty on the weekend. The real storm has been brewing for the last 10 months since the launch of LIV Golf and the 18 players at the Masters who defected to the rival league for its Saudi riches.
There have been accusations that LIV Golf isn’t serious competition with its 54-hole events, and even some name-calling — Fred Couples referred to Phil Mickelson as a “nut bag” — of LIV players for turning their backs on the tour that made them famous.
“Everyone thinks we suck now, so I want to play great,” Harold Varner III said, a LIV player with “Golf Saudi” on his bag. Varner joined for the money. He makes no secret about that.
All that gets set aside on Thursday when the players — professional and amateur, PGA Tour loyalists and those with LIV — have one thing in common.
“We talk about all these issues in golf, but we are here this week — these 88 players — and that’s all that’s on their mind is playing for that green jacket,” Ridley said. “It’s a great symbol of celebration of this game. And we’re looking forward to seeing someone donning it on Sunday afternoon.”
Normalcy is hard to find these days.
The PGA Tour and LIV Golf are involved in an antitrust lawsuit — a case management conference before a federal judge is scheduled for Friday afternoon, about the time Woods should be headed to Amen Corner.
A London-based arbitration panel reportedly will rule this week in favor of the European tour’s ability to sanction LIV players.
The large oak tree next to the Augusta National clubhouse is where all the VIPs across golf gather. Missing was Greg Norman, the CEO and commissioner of LIV Golf.
Norman stoked the debate by telling The Daily Telegraph if a LIV player won the Masters, the other 17 would be waiting for him behind the 18th green to celebrate. Norman won’t be there because he says he wasn’t invited.
“They only sent me a grounds pass last year and nothing, zilch, this time around,” he said. “I’m disappointed because it’s so petty, but of course I’ll still be watching.”
Ridley was quick to point that Norman, typically invited as a two-time British Open champion, showed up only twice in the last 10 years, once while doing radio commentary.
“We did not extend an invitation to Mr. Norman. The primary issue and the driver there is that I want the focus this week to be on the Masters competition, on the great players that are participating, the greatest players in the world,” Ridley said.
That includes LIV players. Ridley made sure of that when he announced in December that while he’s not happy with the fractured environment in golf, the Masters would honor players who qualified under the criteria.
By appearance, it certainly seems normal.
The players invited to take part in formal press conferences were the usual suspects — that included British Open champion Cameron Smith, the last big name to sign with LIV — though Phil Mickelson declined. The starting times had a mixture of PGA Tour and LIV Golf players, though none of the LIV players are part of the featured groups that will be streamed live.
Brooks Koepka played a practice round Tuesday with McIlroy, who has delivered some of the sharpest digs at LIV Golf over the last year. Koepka, a four-time major champion, last week became the first multiple winner at LIV Golf. McIlroy sent him a text to congratulate him and Koepka asked if he wanted to play a practice round.
Was it an indication of thawing relations between the rival circuits?
“I guess you could say that. It’s more just two friends wanting to play together,” Koepka said. “I just wanted to play with him, just compare my game. I know he’s been playing well. It was good for me to see, and I think it’s fun to be able to go play with these guys.”
And then he was back to playing with LIV colleagues on Wednesday.
“Everything’s been good, man,” Koepka said. “We’re still the same people.”
The idea is to make this the same Masters as it’s always been, and Ridley said he was happy to see the “tone has been really good here this week.”
“Golf brings people together, and I’m equally hopeful this week Augusta can be the beginning of a path forward for our game,” he said.
For now, all paths lead toward a green jacket. And that makes this Masters no different from so many others.