McIlroy casts off Masters ‘asterisk’ talk by Gooch


PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. — Here’s how things seem to work regarding LIV Golf and Rory McIlroy: Someone says something, the other side responds, and the cycle just keeps repeating from one topic to the next.

The latest chapter of the saga came Wednesday, when McIlroy said he wanted to give LIV Golf player Talor Gooch “the benefit of the doubt” over comments he made that if the world’s No. 2-ranked player wins the Masters to complete the career Grand Slam, the accomplishment should come with an asterisk because some players who have signed with Saudi-funded LIV cannot play at Augusta National after falling out of the top 50 in the world rankings.

“The Masters is an invitational, and they’ll invite whoever they think warrants an invite,” said McIlroy, who will play in the Cognizant Classic that starts Thursday at PGA National — the site of what used to be called the Honda Classic. “I think to be fair to Talor, if you read the entire … the question and then the answer, it’s not as if he just came out with that. I feel like whoever did the interview led him down that path to say that, so I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt there a little bit. He just agreed with what the interviewer asked.”

Gooch told Australian Golf Digest in a story published earlier this week, “If Rory McIlroy goes and completes his Grand Slam without some of the best players in the world, there’s just going to be an asterisk. It’s just the reality. I think everybody wins whenever the majors figure out a way to get the best players in the world there.”

McIlroy, a three-time FedEx Cup champion, will be playing in the Masters for the 16th consecutive year. He lost a 4-shot lead in the final round of 2011 and played in the final group with winner Patrick Reed in 2018. His best result was runner-up in 2022, 3 shots behind Scottie Scheffler.

Gooch, a three-time LIV Golf winner and the league’s individual champion in 2023, has played in the Masters twice, tying for 14th in 2022 and for 34th last year. He is not in this year’s Masters field at this point, having fallen to a world ranking of No. 449 since LIV Golf events do not count in that formula.

LIV’s Joaquin Niemann got a special invitation from Augusta National last week after he won the Australian Open in December, finished fifth in the Australian PGA and tied for fourth in the Dubai Desert Classic — four shots behind McIlroy.

“I played with him a few weeks ago in Dubai, and he went down to Australia and won,” McIlroy said of Niemann. “He was in Oman last week. He has been chasing his tail around the world to get this, play his way into Augusta or show enough form to warrant an invite. I don’t know if the same can be said for Talor.”

If McIlroy wins the Masters, he would join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods in claiming the men’s career Grand Slam.

McIlroy has offered countless comments on LIV Golf and the golfers heading there in recent years, ranging from outrage (“I hate what it’s doing to the game of golf. I hate it. I really do,” he said after winning the FedExCup in August 2022) to eventually a more conciliatory tone (“I can’t judge people for making that decision,” he said in recent months). When Rahm left for LIV Golf in December, McIlroy told Sky Sports that he wants Ryder Cup eligibility rules to be rewritten because “I certainly want Jon on the next Ryder Cup team.”

When McIlroy was asked for a response to his former agent Chubby Chandler recently suggesting that he might actually join LIV Golf, the response: “He might know a few things. Who knows?”

It was hard to gauge how serious McIlroy was in that moment. Which seems about right, given how complicated this era of golf has seemed at times.

The likes of Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, Phil Mickelson and Bryson DeChambeau — all recent major winners — joined LIV Golf for highly lucrative deals in recent years, and the PGA Tour had to find new ways to remain competitive. Earlier this year, the PGA Tour added the Strategic Sports Group as a minority investor for as much as $3 billion, and it remains unknown whether it will eventually strike a deal with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund.

Camilo Villegas, a past champion of what is now the Cognizant and part of the field at PGA National this week, was announced Wednesday as the new chairman of the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council. It means he will join the PGA Tour policy board for a three-year term starting Jan. 1. He said he is eager to take on the role at a challenging time for the sport.

“I think the game of golf is in an interesting situation,” Villegas said. “I think the rope is pretty tangled up. It needs to be untangled. It will get untangled. How long will it take? We don’t know. We wish we had a crystal ball. I truly believe the game of golf will win.”

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