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    Sunday, April 14, 2024

    Column: Golf has a fractured landscape. Not even the majors can put it back together

    Xander Schauffele hits the ball from the third tee during the final round of the Genesis Invitational golf tournament at Riviera Country Club, Sunday, Feb. 18, 2024, in the Pacific Palisades area of, Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Ryan Kang)

    Los Angeles — The grill room at a California municipal golf course had one TV showing LIV Golf in Las Vegas, another showing the PGA Tour in Phoenix. A half-dozen people shifted eyes watching both, the former with fewer commercials on a network known more for "Young Sheldon" reruns.

    This is the current landscape in golf, and it figures to be that way for the rest of this year and probably well into the next one, if not longer.

    Consider the immediate future.

    Rory McIlroy and Rickie Fowler will be in Florida next week the same time Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau are in Saudi Arabia. At least there is an eight-hour difference in time zones, assuming everyone has The CW app.

    For those who prefer to play the week before a major, LIV Golf will be on the Blue Monster at Doral ahead of the Masters and PGA Tour players will be in San Antonio. The week before the U.S. Open, LIV will be in Houston, the PGA Tour in Ohio for the Memorial.

    All of which leads to the common refrain that all anyone wants is for the best players in golf to be on the same stage.

    The only place for that is the majors, which always mattered more than all the other tournaments. Now the gap is getting larger.

    The PGA Tour already has held three of its "signature events" with a $20 million purse, cold plunges and wild-caught seafood served in player dining. Nothing felt extraordinary about them. LIV Golf had a 59 and a playoff in the dark the first week, and a six-way tie for the lead late on the back nine the second week. The only noise sounded forced.

    Golf has always had various starting lines depending on the level of interest. The most ardent fans tuned in for Kapalua and its magnificent ocean views for The Sentry to start the year. Torrey Pines is the first PGA Tour event on network television. Pebble Beach is the first weekend without the NFL (and more magnificent ocean views, even when the wind and rain cause waves to crash over the 18th fairway).

    The Florida swing means the Masters is near. The Players Championship used to boast the strongest and deepest field in golf, a claim it can no longer make with 15 of the last 30 major champions (a total of nine players) now with LIV. At least it still has the island green.

    That brings us to the Masters. What poetically is referred to as the annual rite of spring might just as well be called the start of the golf season.

    "Yes and no," Xander Schauffele said.

    "If you just love golf, you should have no problem watching the LIV circuit on CW, and you should have no problem turning on CBS or Golf Channel when you watch the PGA Tour, LPGA, whatever you want," he said.

    And now for the "no."

    "If you want to see all the best in the world playing each other, then that would be your first tournament to watch," Schauffele said. "But even then, there are guys who should be at Augusta, arguably, based on how good they are. But they made the choice, rolled the dice and they're not going to be there unless they win something crazy."

    Winning "something crazy" ostensibly would be a major, which comes with a five-year exemption to the other majors.

    Still to be determined is whether Augusta National hands out special invitations and to whom, and whether the PGA of America will consider players from other tours, as Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer, said last year it would.

    Otherwise, it won't be long before the majors don't have all the best.

    DeChambeau has only two years left at the Masters before his exemption from winning the U.S. Open runs out. Cameron Smith has an exemption through 2027.

    Patrick Reed has dropped to No. 100 in the world ranking — he never did reach No. 5, after declaring himself one of the top five players in golf in 2014 when he was at No. 20. Depending on what happens in the Masters, he will be well outside the top 100 for PGA Championship consideration.

    The five-year exemptions for DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson at the PGA end after next year.

    The Official World Golf Ranking hasn't found a way to fairly include LIV Golf in its system, and LIV Golf hasn't provided a reason with such a closed shop.

    Is the OWGR fair? Yes. Accurate? Not so much. Johnson currently is at No. 238, right behind Ockie Strydom and Troy Merritt. But remember, the majors use the world ranking to determine their fields, and the heads of those organizations were the ones voting not to include LIV.

    And so it's on to Mexico and Florida and Texas for the PGA Tour, to Saudi Arabia and Hong Kong for LIV, and everyone meets up at Augusta National in April.

    Rory McIlroy said he thought a signature event would feel cheapened because not all the best players — Jon Rahm, Johnson, Koepka — were there.

    It was a peculiar opinion because that doesn't always happen, anyway. Only five of the top 10 were playing when McIlroy won the Canadian Open in 2022. And even in a limited-field event like the CJ Cup in Las Vegas he won in the fall of 2021, Rahm, DeChambeau and Patrick Cantlay sat that one out. All were among the top 10 in the world.

    All the best are found only at the majors. At least for now.

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