Joaquin Niemann and LIV Golf are facing an Official World Golf Rankings reckoning

AUGUSTA, Ga. — INSIDE ONE OF the most crowded hallways at Augusta National Golf Club, there is a picture of a 19-year-old Joaquin Niemann — his fist punching the air — for all the patrons walking through the merchandise building to see.

Back in 2018, the young Chilean was the No. 1 amateur in the world and had just won the Latin American Amateur Championship to earn one of the most coveted gifts in the sport: an invitation to the Masters.

Fast forward six years later: Niemann has now played in four Masters, won 12 tournaments as a professional and has been ranked as high as 15th in the world. And yet, as the calendar turned to 2024, Niemann, who plays for the LIV Golf League, found himself in a similar position to the one he faced when he was still a teenager. He didn’t have a spot in this year’s Masters.

Because the Official World Golf Rankings still does not award points for LIV’s 54-hole events, Niemann’s ranking had been plummeting well outside the top-50 requirement that the Masters holds as non-exempt criteria for their tournament. Without any exemptions earned by winning or finishing high in other majors, Niemann had no choice. If he wanted to play at Augusta this year, he would have to try and qualify by playing events outside of LIV.

In order to see if he could rise up the rankings, Niemann traveled to Oman, Dubai and Australia, where he won the Australian Open and finished in fourth place at both the Australian PGA Championship and the Dubai Desert Classic. Niemann’s work paid off — he didn’t land inside the top 50, but his efforts were recognized. In early March, he received a special invite to the Masters.

“It was super hard not being in the majors,” Niemann told ESPN at LIV Miami last week. “But it’s pretty special to see that the Masters saw what I was trying to accomplish.”

Niemann’s journey is unique but not singular. At 25 years old, he has his entire career still ahead of him. Most players who opted for LIV are veterans with plenty of majors experience and exemptions to the sport’s most prestigious tournaments. Even defending champion Jon Rahm, who is 27, said this week that being able to play in all majors for the next five years as a result of winning the Masters solidified his decision to leave the PGA Tour.

But what nearly kept Niemann out of Augusta has affected others who were in the Masters just a year ago. LIV players like Abraham Ancer, Talor Gooch, Harold Varner III, Mito Pereira and Jason Kokrak, among others, are nowhere near Magnolia Lane this year due to their decline in the world rankings.

“There’s gotta be a fair way for everybody on whatever tour to play and compete,” Rahm said this week. “There’s got to be a way for some players to earn their way in.”

Of the 13 LIV golfers in the field this year, seven are here on past champion lifetime exemptions. The rest got in through either a special invite (Niemann) or due to their performance at other majors or PGA Tour events prior to their departure. If the system remains as it is, that number will likely diminish.

“We believe that [OWGR] is a legitimate determiner of who the best players in the game are,” Masters Chairman Fred Ridley said Wednesday.

As the sport’s future ecosystem remains unclear with no deal imminent between the PGA Tour and the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia, the chances for LIV’s rank-and-file to find their way to a major are slim to none unless they attempt to go the Niemann route — and even that isn’t a guarantee.

For those who have qualified, the risk they took by going to LIV has now transformed into an added pressure to perform when they tee it off at a major. More than ever, major performance is determining major attendance. And the clock is ticking.

WITH THE POST-ECLIPSE sun beginning to dim on Monday afternoon and the sun-kissed Augusta crowd starting to thin out, Bryson DeChambeau was still out there, grinding over lag putts on the tricky ninth green.

Soon after wrapping up his practice for the day, DeChambeau stepped up to a microphone and answered six questions — none of them about Augusta or the state of his game. Instead, they were all a continuation of a conversation DeChambeau has not shied away from as of late.

“Everybody has their own prerogatives and wishes and wants,” DeChambeau said. “And the only thing I wish is that we can all see eye to eye on some things and that we can come back to some level playing field where we can all have some fun together.”

DeChambeau’s comments Monday echoed his sentiment from the LIV event in Miami the weekend prior, where he originally called for the sport to be reunited “fast.”

“It’s not a two-year thing,” DeChambeau said. “Like it needs to happen quicker rather than later just for the good of the sport. Too many people are losing interest.”

The irony, of course, is that DeChambeau — as well as many of the players who left for LIV — were actors in the sport’s split. Nobody is exactly blameless in this ordeal, but DeChambeau is also incentivized, now more than ever, to call for unity. He might be one of only seven LIV players exempt for all four majors this year, but his time at Augusta is running out too, coincidentally or not, in two years.

It’s not just DeChambeau, and it’s not just the Masters that hang in the balance for LIV players.

This is the last year Dustin Johnson will be able to play in the PGA Championship barring him meeting a different set of criteria. The two-time major winner has a U.S. Open exemption as well as an Open Championship exemption, but only through 2026 and 2025, respectively.

While Brooks Koepka can play the PGA for life after winning it three times now, his current exemption at Augusta only runs through 2028 and 2027 for the Open. Although Phil Mickelson can play in the PGA and Masters forever, his U.S. Open exemption runs out next year.

For players like Sergio Garcia, the drop-off has been more immediate. The 2017 Masters winner can only play in this year’s Masters and will have to try and get in through local qualifying for both the U.S. Open and the Open. Garcia notably failed to do the latter last year. The same can be said for 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed, 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and 2-time champion Bubba Watson — all of whom have no eligibility outside of Augusta.

Two-time major winner Martin Kaymer does not have any eligibility at Augusta. As the U.S. Open returns to Pinehurst this year — the site of his 2014 victory — it also marks when his 10-year U.S. Open champion exemption runs out.

And then there are the young players who bolted for LIV even before they had any success in OWGR-sanctioned events. Players like 20-year-old Caleb Surratt and 24-year-old Eugenio Chacarra don’t currently have any way to get into the majors unless they follow the path now laid out by Niemann. 22-year-old David Puig did that by traveling all the way to Malaysia where he won the IRS Prima Malaysian Open to get himself into this year’s Open Championship.

“They definitely said that we were going to get [OWGR points],” 32-year-old LIV player Carlos Ortiz said on the Subpar podcast recently of LIV’s recruiting pitch. “I just feel that, people have to recognize that there are good players here, and if you want to have a ranking that includes all the golf players, you have to have some [LIV] people included in that ranking.”

While that notion has often been repeated by several LIV players, there seems to be no desire by LIV to change their format in order to comply with the OWGR criteria. Ridley said Wednesday that the OWGR board made some suggestions to LIV “regarding pathways and access to players and concern about some of the aspects of team golf.” But instead of budging, LIV CEO Greg Norman withdrew the tour’s application for points in March.

Players have had no choice but to either accept their fate or find an alternative route.

WHEN THE SPECIAL invite arrived and the call came through asking if Niemann would accept it, the Chilean had to resort to comedy.

“Let me think about it,” Niemann recalled joking. The moment was not unprecedented, as the Masters has given out special invitations before, but it was certainly notable given Niemann’s league affiliation.

Niemann felt vindicated. Unlike some of his fellow LIV competitors who opted to not play in local qualifying for the two open majors, he had put in the work.

In the process, Niemann didn’t shy away from taking shots at the current OWGR structure, like when he was told he was one of the favorites for the upcoming majors after winning the LIV event in Jeddah.

“How is that possible if I’m like 100 in the world?” he asked with a grin.

While there is a disconnect between what the world rankings indicate and certain players’ performances (for example, Koepka is ranked outside the top 30), the reality of the sport’s impasse is that players have nothing but their words to use when criticizing the current system — even if they don’t exactly have a solution or a clear stance on whether they would want to be reinstated onto the PGA Tour.

“Do I want to play a full schedule? You know what, I don’t know,” DeChambeau said. “We’ll see how things shake out. I don’t know what the future is going to look like, and I’m not here to decide that.”

This week, several players have been asked a similar question; what happens if a LIV player wins the Masters? What will change?

The answer has been a resounding shrug.

“I think the negotiations are going on with or without a [LIV] win,” DeChambeau said. “From a negotiation standpoint, I don’t think it’ll change much to be honest with you.”

“I don’t think it would really affect it,” Niemann said. “I think there [are] already too many good players on every Tour. I believe that if it — I don’t think [a] LIV player has to win the Masters to change things. I think things are changing already, and they are going to come up with a solution, with an agreement or whatever they are trying to do, for the best.”

A deal between the PGA Tour and PIF would only be the beginning. Plenty of questions would remain about how exactly to reincorporate LIV players back into the world rankings and provide them eligibility for ongoing majors.

“There’s a lot of people a lot smarter than me that could figure this out in a much more efficient way,” Rahm said. “They’ll need to figure out a way to evaluate how the LIV players are doing and how they can earn their way. That’s the best way I can say it. I just don’t really know what that looks like.”

For now, players have to literally and figuratively hit and hope. As Ridley said in his news conference Wednesday, if the tournament ever felt a player outside Augusta National’s outlined qualifications deserved to be in the field, they would simply invite them. Just like they did with Niemann.

“Historically, and as stated in our qualification criteria, we consider international players for special invitations,” Ridley said. “But we do look at those every year and I will say that if we felt that there were a player or players, whether they played on the LIV Tour or any other tour, who were deserving of an invitation to the Masters, that we would exercise that discretion with regard to special invitations.”

For players whose decisions have put them in no man’s land, they can hold on to two things: their game and their belief that they can stay in majors with the one thing they can control — their performance. Niemann, for his part, feels ready for his close-up.

“I think my game is the best I’ve ever seen it,” Niemann said. “That’s why I was super into getting into the majors because I knew, I can win at the Masters.”

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