The Masters still sizzles. But is golf scaring off its fans?

Bryson DeChambeau acknowledges the crowd as he walks to the 18th green during the first round of the 2024 Masters. ANDREW REDINGTON/GETTY IMAGES
Bryson DeChambeau acknowledges the crowd as he walks to the 18th green during the first round of the 2024 Masters. ANDREW REDINGTON/GETTY IMAGES

Summary

Players worry the prolonged battle between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf is pushing away the audience.

Masters weekend is here—golf’s prestige showcase, high season for green blazers and pimento cheese sandwiches, a fairway feast among the azaleas in fussy, phone-free Augusta.

Who’s going to win? Prediction: A golfer! My prediction is almost never wrong.

The Masters thrives on traditionalism and mystique, its organizers believing the event is bigger than any player, and they are probably correct. But the excitement for this year’s tournament feels like even more of a reality distortion field than usual, because of what’s happening broadly in the sport:

Golfers are worried that they’re losing–losing you.

Not losing you to the customary golf nap, a cherished ritual for watching TV golf, even during the Masters. They’re worried they’re losing you permanently.

We’re two years into golf’s civil war—an exasperating fight between the incumbent PGA Tour and the challenger, Saudi-funded LIV Golf. Despite claims of a pending merger, the battle drags on, with separate entities, bosses, tours, fields, and styles of competition—not to mention sulky grumbling over world ranking points.

On and on it goes, a tedious fray over money and power, starring the private jet clubhouse class.

Now the most obvious outcome is happening. You have key players—on both sides—getting nervous they’re pushing away the loyal golf fan. Majors like the Masters will always draw an audience, but other events?

“I just think with the fighting and everything that’s [gone] on over the past couple of years, people are getting really fatigued," PGA Tour stalwart Rory McIlroy said recently. “It’s turning people off men’s professional golf, and that’s not a good thing for anyone."

A member of the PGA Tour’s policy board until last fall, McIlroy said television ratings for “PGA Tour events this year" were “down 20% across the board."

“That’s big," he said. “I would say the numbers on LIV aren’t great, either, in terms of the people tuning in."

Hey friend: If you’re sitting there in a LIV RangeGoats team polo, wearing a Fireballs team hat, debating a purchase of some $80 LIV Golf boardshorts, with your television permanently tuned to the CW Network, I’ll say that Rory owes you an apology for questioning your LIV Golf passion.

But I don’t get the impression that LIV Golf is filling the sports world with excitement, either.

In December, the nouveau no-cut team golf tour scored a coup, luring reigning Masters champ Jon Rahm with a nine-figure payday, and the signing barely budged mainstream interest. It’s easier to get people to talk about their sixth-favorite show on Hulu than to get a spirited LIV chat going among casual fans.

Rahm, who got his own expansion team (Legion XIII), has already fretted about LIV’s 54-hole format (“I definitely wouldn’t mind going back to 72 holes," he said) and professed nostalgia for PGA Tour events he can’t play anymore. He’s in Augusta as defending champ, but LIVers (especially ones without major victories) remain miffed they’re not getting Official World Golf Ranking Points, costing them potential chances to play major tournaments.

This is what fans think: Boo hoo hoo, let me dry those tears with a $100 bill. No one entered a LIV deal blind to the potential drawbacks. As Don Draper once howled behind his desk: That’s what the money is for!

A startup league in any sport is always going to face headwinds, and LIVers are being paid mightily to endure the public ambivalence. Early LIV signees like Phil Mickelson argue these are just growing pains for an overdue revolution in a sport slow to modernize.

“Right now, we are in the disruption phase," said an optimistic Lefty.

But other LIVers worry. Rahm’s fellow escapee, Bryson DeChambeau (Crushers), echoed McIlroy’s comments about fans being worn out by the PGA Tour vs. LIV clash.

“The fans are what drive this sport," said DeChambeau, who led the Masters after day one with a 7-under par opening round. “If we don’t have fans, we don’t have golf."

The risk is alienating an audience which gets tired of the bickering and doesn’t come back; it’s happened in other sports The solution, both McIlroy and DeChambeau believe, is a PGA Tour/LIV Golf agreement as soon as possible.

“I want the train to speed up so we can get this thing over and done with," said McIlroy.

Mirrored DeChambeau: “It needs to happen fast."

The sport appeared headed in that direction last June, when the PGA Tour shed its moral indignation about LIV and stunningly announced it would partner up with its nemesis. But it’s nearly a year later, a major deadline was blown, then extended, and no deal has been formalized. The PGA Tour has added significant outside investment to give it financial ballast, but it…

Zzzzzzzzz. See, you’ve fallen asleep, haven’t you?

This is the problem. In lieu of a deal, the cold war continues, the players are tired of it, and the public reaction is…to fall asleep.

It’s like the old saying: You think it’s hard to stay awake following the inner machinations of one pampered professional golf tour? Try staying awake for two.

Golf needs to know: Sports fans are easy. They want to see the best athletes compete, against each other, for genuine stakes. They don’t want a messy, split schedule with differing formats. They don’t want to think about screwy rules for qualifications and rankings.

They want golf. They don’t want splintering and confusion. They want to argue about Scottie, Rory and Rahmbo. They want to see Tiger Woods, still competing despite age and injuries. Fans want to watch their favorite players play—and again, apologies if you’re sitting there in a RangeGoats polo—I don’t think they give a rangegoat’s tail about the RangeGoats.

They want to see what they’ll see this weekend in Augusta. The Masters does it right. Just ask them.

Write to Jason Gay at Jason.Gay@wsj.com

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