‘We have to do something’: Fracture, pleas for unification, and a poignant Champions Dinner moment

‘We have to do something’: Fracture, pleas for unification, and a poignant Champions Dinner moment
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AUGUSTA, Ga. – Gary Player called it one of the best Champions Dinners he’s ever attended.

Thirty-three past Masters champions gathered Tuesday night inside Augusta National Golf Club’s 170-year-old clubhouse to celebrate the past, most notably reigning green-jacket winner Jon Rahm, while enjoying each other’s company and some tasty Spanish fare.

Ben Crenshaw was especially wowed by the ensalada de txangurro, a Basque crab salad with potato.

“Very sweet and rich,” Crenshaw described.

The wine went down smoothly for Ian Woosnam.

“Red!” Woosnam responded quickly – and somewhat astonishingly – when asked what kind he had partaken.

Player said Nick Faldo didn’t finish his dessert, the milhojas de crema y nata.

“So,” Player added, “I just helped myself to it.”

And as the dinner wound down, several players, including Rahm and Jose Maria Olazabal, shared a few stories about their late countryman, Seve Ballesteros, who would’ve turned 67 years old that day. It was one of the more emotional moments in recent memory, several attendees noted, and Player even called the scene “enlightening.”

“He’s always very close to my heart,” Olazabal said of Ballesteros. “He’s very present in all of us [Spaniards].”

Added Crenshaw: “I reiterated to Jon how proud Seve would be now. … It was a great night.”

And it closed with a poignant message from Tom Watson.

“We were sitting down, and we were having great stories about Seve, and people were laughing and talking,” Watson said. “I said to Mr. Ridley, I said, ‘Do you mind if I say something about being here together with everybody?’ He said, ‘Please do.’ And I got up, and I’m looking around the room, and I’m seeing just a wonderful experience everybody is having. They are jovial. They are having a great time. They are laughing. I said, ‘Ain’t it good to be together again?’ And there was kind of an appall from the joviality, and it quieted down, and then Ray Floyd got up and 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.

“We have to do something.”

For this week, at least, the best professional golfers in the world are together: Scheffler and Rahm, McIlroy and Koepka, Schauffele and Niemann.

But most other weeks, that’s not the case. It’s been nearly two years since LIV Golf launched, taking with it stars such as Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson for its inaugural event in London, and later, Koepka, DeChambeau, Cam Smith, and perhaps most earthshattering, Rahm, the reigning Masters champ, who reportedly inked a deal worth over $300 million to join the Saudi-backed league.

There was some hope that Rahm’s signing would be the final impetus to get some sort of agreement done between the PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund. But as Masters week begins, there is no tangible proof that a deal is any closer to being done, even after several meetings involving Tour commissioner Jay Monahan and PIF governor Yasir Al-Rumayyan.

“If Jay thinks we’re doing fine, we’ll get there; I think we’ll get there,” said Jack Nicklaus, who had a brief conversation with Monahan recently. “And I certainly hope that happens, the sooner the better.”

Meanwhile, frustration continues to grow about the sport’s fracture at its highest point.

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

But what is that solution? It’s certainly complicated.

For one, it would be difficult to envision the Tour and LIV, with their current competition calendars and formats, co-existing; and any ideas for a world tour, like Rory McIlroy has suggested, remain wildly premature. Secondly, there’s the issue of LIV players returning to the Tour that suspended them, and how that looks. Some Tour pros, the ones who, in their minds, remained loyal to the establishment – and in many cases passed up on nine-figure contracts – have already called out LIV players who’ve expressed similar desires for unification.

“If the fans are upset, then look at the guys that left,” Scottie Scheffler said in March. “We had a tour, we were all together and the people that left are no longer here. At the end of the day, that’s where the splintering comes from.”

Player believes the Tour loyalists should be compensated if the two rival tours do end up coming together.

“Otherwise,” Player argues, “there’s going to be dissension.”

Bryson DeChambeau was asked earlier this week what he envisions the response being should a green jacket be slipped over a Crushers uniform, or the like, on Sunday evening. His answer was telling.

“I think we’d all be extremely excited and happy for whoever that individual is,” DeChambeau said. “I’m not so sure for the other side, but that’s for them to make up their own emotional state I guess you could say. From a negotiation standpoint, I don’t think it’ll change much to be honest with you.”

And that’s the thing; no one fully knows what the future holds.

What is known is that whatever this is, it’s hurting 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 [Nicklaus and Player included] want to get together. We want to get together like we were at that Champions Dinner, happy, the best players playing against each other.

“The bottom line; that’s what we want in professional golf, and right now, we don’t have it.”

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