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Explained: Gooch’s Grand Slam dig at McIlroy and the LIV ‘asterisk’

Talor Gooch has criticised the lack of major exemptions available to LIV Golf players and has questioned the legitimacy of a potential Rory McIlroy Grand Slam, should he go onto win The Masters.

Gooch was inside the world’s top 40 when he joined LIV Golf in 2022 but now sits 449th in the Official World Golf Ranking, despite winning three times on the circuit last year, with the LIV Golf League events being played without ranking points after having their bid rejected by the OWGR.

World ranking position is used among the exemption categories into all four majors, with the top-50 in the world at the end of the calendar year or the week before The Masters earning an invite into the opening major of the year.

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Gooch has seen LIV Golf’s Joaquin Niemann earn a special exemption for Augusta National after three top-five finishes on the DP World Tour this season, including Australian Open victory, but believes more should be done to get their players into majors.

“It [him not getting an exemption] is not surprising,” Gooch told Australian Golf Digest. “I think the majors have kind of shown that they’re not getting on board with LIV.

“‘Jaco [Niemann] went outside of LIV and played some great golf and they rewarded him for that. So hopefully the day will turn when the majors decide to start rewarding good play on LIV. Hopefully that’ll be sooner than later.”

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What did Gooch say about McIlroy?

McIlroy has had 20 top-10s in majors since his 2014 PGA Championship success and will arrive at The Masters once again as one of the favourites to secure the victory required to complete the career Grand Slam.

The Northern Irishman would become just the sixth male player in the modern era to win all four majors and the first since Tiger Woods, although Gooch feels the strength of field is weakened without the presence of some LIV Golf players.

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“If Rory McIlroy goes and completes his [Career] Grand Slam without some of the best players in the world, there’s just going to be an asterisk,” Gooch explained. “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.”

Who from LIV Golf will be at The Masters?

Jon Rahm – the big off-season signing for the 2024 campaign – returns as defending champion after last year’s four-shot win over PGA Championship winner Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson, with all three competing on the LIV Golf League circuit.

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Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Bubba Watson and Charl Schwartzel get invites as former winners at Augusta National, while Bryson DeChambeau and Cameron Smith return as major champion from the past five years.

Tyrrell Hatton and Adrian Meronk were already secure of an invite before joining LIV Golf ahead of the off-season, based on their world ranking, with Joaquin Niemann receiving an exemption earlier this month to make his fifth appearance at The Masters.

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Which LIV Golf League players are missing?

Gooch is the only player from the top six of last year’s LIV Golf Individual standings not currently securing an invite to Augusta National, with Smith, Koepka, DeChambeau, Johnson and Reed all in as either former Masters champions or major winners in the past five years.

Harold Varner III, Charles Howell III and Danny Lee are winners from last season’s LIV Golf League not in the field, while Mito Pereira, Abraham Ancer, Thomas Pieters, Kevin Na and Louis Oosthuizen all featured in The Masters in 2023 but currently don’t get to return.

Ryder Cup stalwarts Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter miss out once again, with Henrik Stenson, Martin Kaymer and Graeme McDowell the other former major winners a long way off from qualifying.

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Does Gooch have a point?

The stars of the LIV Golf League are already locked in for the forthcoming majors, although several on the circuit would have been closer to the world’s top 50 – and a potential exemption – had world ranking points been on offer at their events since its launch.

Oosthuizen won back-to-back DP World Tour events at the end of 2023 and followed it up with a runner-up finish on the Asian Tour’s International Series in Oman last week, where fellow LIV Golf player Carlos Ortiz took the title, with the South African showing impressive form.

Stinger GC teammate Dean Burmester is also already a two-time winner on the DP World Tour this season, following his Joburg Open success by claiming the South African Open Championship, while Spaniard David Puig has won twice on the Asian Tour in recent months.

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Paul Casey has posted five career top-10s at The Masters and made a promising start to the year on LIV Golf by claiming 11th and fifth in his first two events, while former US Open runner-up Matthew Wolff showed signs of a return to form by finishing fourth in Las Vegas earlier this month.

How have other players responded?

Former world No 1 Westwood is among those questioning the qualification system, telling Australian Golf Digest: “I think the Official World Golf Ranking has got itself into a real hole. It’s got itself to a point where it’s obsolete, really, if I’m being completely honest.

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“It’s managed to be so stubborn that it no longer ranks all the best golfers in the world fairly. And it’s gone so far that I don’t see how it can come back from the hole that it’s in because you can’t backdate them. I don’t know where the OWGR goes from there. It’s not fit for purpose anymore.

“It’s there to rank the best golfers in the world and it doesn’t do that. And if you are a major championship and you’re looking for the best fields, you now can’t go off the OWGR to formulate your fields and use them for exemptions. You’ve got to find another way of doing it, otherwise you lose credibility as a major championship, don’t you?”

LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman has branded the world rankings as “laughable” in recent weeks, while DeChambeau insists that the Saudi-backed circuit have “fulfilled every single criteria” and should have points on offer to earn.

“I have words that I’d love to say but I can’t about it,” DeChambeau said on the Fairway to Heaven podcast. “It’s a bit frustrating, but nothing we can do at this moment. If we showcase ourselves in the major championships then there’s no way they can keep us out. We just got to play well in the majors and once we do, they have no choice.”

What has McIlroy’s reaction been?

McIlroy has yet to respond to Gooch’s comments, although is likely to be asked about them on Wednesday when he has his pre-tournament press conference ahead of the PGA Tour’s Cognizant Classic.

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Rory McIlroy admits he has changed his tune by saying returning LIV Golf players shouldn’t be punished

The former world No 1 has previously described adding to his major tally as the “final piece of the puzzle”, with McIlroy also showing a softened stance towards LIV Golf in recent months as he seeks a resolution in the divide within the sport.

“I see where golf is and I see that having a diminished PGA Tour and having a diminished LIV Tour or anything else is bad for both parties,” McIlroy said ahead of the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am. “It would be much better being together and moving forward together for the good of the game.”

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What’s next?

McIlroy is in action this week at the Cognizant Classic, the first of three consecutive starts on the PGA Tour and the beginning of a four-week Florida Swing, with the 34-year-old also set to play in the Valero Texas Open in early April.

The Masters then takes place from April 11-14, with all four rounds exclusively live on Sky Sports Golf. Stream the PGA Tour, DP World Tour, LPGA Tour and more on NOW.

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