Tiger Woods may be upstaged by Augusta chairman at Masters
A press conference with Tiger Woods can usually be guaranteed to command the biggest attendance at any golf tournament, not least the Masters.
Yet in the newly-tumultuous world of men’s professional golf, this year has the potential for the 15-time major winner to find himself somewhat upstaged by Augusta National chairman Fred Ridley.
Ridley is used to having the Wednesday schedule to himself for his traditional pre-tournament press conference and should have plenty of newsworthy comments, most notably over the potential adoption of a shorter ball and the Augusta future of LIV Golf players.
Golf’s governing bodies – who said in February 2020 they intended to “break the ever-increasing cycle of hitting distance” – recently announced the proposal of a Model Local Rule (MLR) to give tournaments the option to require the use of balls which will travel around 15 yards less.
R&A chief executive Martin Slumbers and USGA counterpart Mike Whan confirmed that the MLR would apply in their own elite events, most notably the Open Championship and US Open, respectively.
The PGA Tour did not immediately back the proposal and it was strongly criticised by top equipment manufacturing company Acushnet and former world number one Justin Thomas, who plays their market-leading Titleist balls.
The PGA of America, which runs the US PGA Championship, issued a vague statement which noted that the rule’s possible implementation in 2026 “is still a long way off”, leaving the Masters to have the last, potentially vital, word.
Speaking in 2021, Ridley said a specific “Masters ball” would be a last resort in the battle to limit hitting distances, but even a club as wealthy and influential as Augusta National appears to be reaching the limits of its footprint.
The fifth hole was lengthened by 40 yards ahead of the 2019 Masters and the par-five 13th has finally been extended by 35 yards after the purchase of land from the adjacent Augusta Country Club.
If Ridley indicates that the Masters will adopt the shorter ball, that would tip the balance firmly in the favour of those who support it, with Rory McIlroy – who needs to win the Masters to complete a career grand slam – already suggesting he would use it in PGA Tour events even if not required to in order to improve his chances in majors.
As things stand, those majors remain open to the players who joined the Saudi-funded LIV Golf League, with Ridley stating in December that anyone eligible under its “current criteria” would be invited for 2023.
However, Ridley also said he regretted that “recent actions have divided men’s professional golf by diminishing the virtues of the game and the meaningful legacies of those who built it,” adding that any changes to the invitation criteria would be announced in April.
As for Woods, he has made it clear on several occasions that his competitive career will now be limited to a handful of events per season, a legacy of the car crash in February 2021 which left him fearing his right leg would have to be amputated.
The 47-year-old will prioritise the majors and tournaments with which he has a personal connection. His sole appearance before the Masters this season came in February’s Genesis Invitational, which benefits his foundation.
Woods insisted he was only competing at Riviera because he thought he could win and will doubtless say the same at Augusta.
But while it used to be a brave man who bet against Woods, odds of 50/1 and above suggest the bookmakers will happily take their chances – and your money.