Rory McIlroy not bothered by Masters ‘asterisk’ comments from LIV Golf’s Talor Gooch

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Hinako Shibuno, of Japan, hits out of tghe bunker on the 18th hole during the third round of the U.S. Women's Open golf tournament, Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Houston. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

PALM BEACH GARDENS, Fla. (AP) — 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 chapters of the saga came Wednesday, when McIlroy said he wanted to give LIV player Talor Gooch “the benefit of the doubt” over comments he made saying 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 since they have fallen out of the top 50 in the world ranking.

“The Masters is an invitational and they’ll invite whoever they think warrants an invite,” said McIlroy, who’ll 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 made the comment to Australian Golf Digest, published earlier this week. Gooch — who is not in the Masters field at this point, presumably because his world ranking has plummeted since LIV events do not count in that formula — said “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 FedExCup champion — will be playing in the Masters for the 16th consecutive year. He lost a four-shot lead in the final round of 2011, played in the final group with winner Patrick Reed in 2018 and his best result was runner-up in 2022, three shots behind Scottie Scheffler.

Gooch has played in the Masters twice. He tied for 14th in 2022 and tied for 34th last year, and has won three times since joining LIV.

But that wasn’t enough to merit an invitation. 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 about 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 as those who have claimed the men’s career Grand Slam.

McIlroy has offered countless comments on LIV and 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 striking a more conciliatory tone (“I can’t judge people for making that decision,” he said in recent months). When Rahm left for LIV 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,” he said.

And on Wednesday, that cycle — someone says something to start something — likely continued. When McIlroy was asked for a response to his former agent Chubby Chandler recently suggesting that he might actually join LIV, 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 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 signed Strategic Sports Group as a minority investor for as much as $3 billion, and it remains unknown if it will eventually strike a deal with the Public Investment Fund of Saudi Arabia.

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 Players Advisory Council. It means he will join the PGA Tour Policy Board for a three-year term starting Jan. 1, and said he’s eager to take on the role at a challenging time for the game.

“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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TIM REYNOLDS

TIM REYNOLDS