National

Masters invites LIV Golf's Niemann, two others on special exemptions

Two weeks ago, moments after Joaquin Niemann won LIV Golf's season-opening Mayakoba event, cameras caught him bemoaning the fact that he still wasn't in any majors. Niemann was realizing the grim side of the devil's bargain he'd struck to join LIV — he was making more money than most golfers in history, but he was locked out of the majors that also make up the most storied part of golf's history. Niemann is one of the most talented up-and-comers in the game, but one without an easy path to the majors.

Now, the path to at least one major — the 2024 Masters — just opened wide for him. Augusta National has invited Niemann, along with Denmark’s Thorbjørn Olesen and Japan’s Ryo Hisatsune, to compete in this year's event, and all three have accepted the invitation.

“The Masters Tournament has a long-standing tradition of inviting leading international players who are not otherwise qualified,” Masters chairman Fred Ridley said in a release. “Today’s announcement represents the tournament’s continued commitment towards developing interest in the game of golf across the world."

Hisatsune, the first Japanese player to be named the DP World Tour's Rookie of the Year, will be making his major championship debut. Olesen has played in three previous Masters tournaments, most recently in 2019, and made the cut in all three.

Niemann is the most intriguing of the three because of his affiliation with LIV Golf. He's played the Masters four times before, making the cut in three of those. He's finished in the top 5 in his three DP World Tour starts this season, including a victory in the Australian Open in December. He's the former No. 1-ranked amateur in the world.

However, Niemann is also one of the most prominent members of LIV Golf, which is engaged in an ongoing battle with the PGA Tour over the future of the game. LIV Golf players do not receive world ranking points, which are the standard way for most players to qualify for majors, and victories in LIV Golf tournaments do not automatically qualify players for major appearances, the way PGA Tour wins do.

Players can perform well at qualification tournaments to get into the two "open" majors — the U.S. Open and the Open Championship — but the Masters and the PGA Championship are invitation-only for those who don't automatically qualify elsewhere.

It's significant, then, that the Masters has decided to extend an invitation to Niemann. It's also significant that the Masters release did not mention Niemann's LIV affiliation at all. The Masters has long prided itself on bringing together the world's most talented golfers in early April, and has tried to keep politics and inter-league sniping outside the gates of Augusta National. Clearly, the club is threading a needle here with Niemann, inviting a highly talented golfer without welcoming in the swirling drama around him.

The PGA Tour and Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, the financial backer behind LIV Golf, have been in a legal ceasefire since announcing an agreement in June. But the two entities missed a self-imposed Dec. 31 deadline to create a framework for a new professional golf structure. In the months since the planned agreement was announced, LIV Golf has added notables like Jon Rahm, while the PGA Tour has received significant outside financial investment from a consortium of professional sports team owners.

LIV Golf still has a long way to go to stand on equal footing with the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour, among other golf tours that receive ranking points. But with the Masters invitation, it's clear that the majors are looking past some of the more petty elements of this ongoing dispute and are normalizing, to some small extent, the LIV Tour's players and organization.