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Getting the chance to play at The Masters isn’t easy. Just ask LIV Golf’s Joaquin Niemann

<i>Warren Little/Getty Images via CNN Newsource</i><br/>Joaquin Niemann in action at the 2024 Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club in Dubai
Warren Little/Getty Images via CNN Newsource
Joaquin Niemann in action at the 2024 Hero Dubai Desert Classic at Emirates Golf Club in Dubai

By Jack Bantock, CNN

(CNN) — For many aspiring golfers, playing The Masters is the pinnacle of the sport, yet the game’s recent rifts have ensured the pathways to Augusta National have become complicated.

Though the PGA Tour and DP World (European) Tour continue to work towards the reconciliation agreement with breakaway LIV Golf that would end a feud that has dogged the men’s professional game for almost two years, fallout from the split continues to hang over the four major championships.

And with The Masters kicking off the calendar for the sport’s four majors on April 11, its build-up took a twist Wednesday when LIV Golf’s Joaquin Niemann received a special invitation to play the 88th edition of the prestigious tournament.

How do you qualify for The Masters?

To understand why Niemann’s inclusion raised eyebrows, it helps to get to grips with how golfers secure their spot on the field at Augusta National.

Qualifying criteria for invitation to the Masters spans 20 categories, starting with former champions. Anyone who has won a green jacket receives a lifetime exemption to compete at the event, hence why five-time champion Tiger Woods is among the 83 current invitees for April despite his sporadic playing time and world No. 896 ranking.

Winners of the other three major titles – the PGA Championship, US and British Open Championships respectively – within the previous five years receive honorary exemptions, while victors at The Players Championship, often dubbed “the fifth major,” inside the last three years also secure automatic spots.

A host of places are reserved for amateur players, including the reigning champions from the US, Asia-Pacific and Latin America regions, meaning reigning US Amateur champion Nick Dunlap – who turned professional four days after winning The American Express in January – had secured his exemption even before the PGA Tour triumph that would have clinched him his invite anyway.

Any PGA Tour event win since the previous Masters that awards a full-point allocation for the season ending Tour Championship guarantees players a spot on the field.
Anyone that qualified for the Tour Championship is also eligible.

Other criteria rewards players for strong performances at the major championships. The top-12 finishers at The Masters and the top-four at the other three majors (including ties) stamp their ticket to next year’s event.

It’s the final two sets of criteria that are most pertinent for Niemann and LIV Golf players. Any player ranked inside the top-50 of the Official World Golf Ranking (OWGR) for the previous calendar year, as well as the week prior to the tournament, fill out the remainder of the field.

Though exact criteria differs between the four major championships, all incorporate world ranking points as a viable qualifier.

Why is that an issue for some LIV Golf players?

The problem is that LIV Golf players can’t earn ranking points – at all.

It’s not been for the want of trying. The Saudi-backed tour had applied to have their events – run across 54 holes with no cuts – qualify for accumulating ranking points, but the request was unanimously rejected by the OWGR Board Committee in October last year.

In a published letter responding to LIV Golf executives Greg Norman and Gary Davidson, OWGR chairman Peter Dawson said “concerns” over the series’ format, including an exemption from relegation as well as simultaneous individual and team competition, were behind the decision.

“It is unfortunate that no way to include LIV Golf in the Ranking could be found which would be fair and equitable to the 24 currently eligible tours and their thousands of playing members,” Dawson added in a statement.

“Keeping this matter under review, OWGR will continue to monitor developments in men’s professional golf as a whole and at LIV in particular.”

A statement in response from LIV Golf said “professional golf is now without a true or global scoring and ranking system,” though Niemann, one of its team captains, was accepting of the situation when asked in January.

“It’s not frustrating for me, it’s just nothing to do with me,” Niemann told reporters.

“I obviously took the decision to join LIV and I knew it was going to happen – there was going to be no ranking.

“I think I deserve to be in the majors. Obviously, [the] world ranking does not show that but I think if I had to play every week with world rankings, I am going to be in the majors.”

The Chilean was speaking before the Hero Dubai Desert Classic in what was a rare appearance at a DP World Tour event, only his third since he left the PGA Tour for LIV Golf in July 2022.

Then, Niemann had been a two-time PGA Tour winner ranked 20th in the world.
The 25-year-old touched down in Dubai last month as world No. 70 and made it clear that he was there solely to try and make up the 20 places needed to return to the top-50 – and Augusta.

“Obviously my goal is to get to the Masters,” said Niemann, whose tied-16th finish at last year’s event was his best in four appearances.

“I’m one of a few of the players on LIV that don’t have a spot in the majors. I know I want to be there. I know I want to play in those four events and I know if I play there, I have a chance to win. My goal for now is to get there.”

How are LIV Golf players making it to the majors?

Niemann’s wish was fulfilled Wednesday, just not in the manner he envisioned.

A tied-fourth finish in Dubai saw the Chilean jump to world No.64, though he has since tumbled down to 81st, leapfrogged by those competing at weekly PGA Tour events.

He had subsequently looked set to miss out on his goal before Wednesday’s announcement that he was one of three golfers to accept a special invitation to The Masters, joining two DP World Tour regulars in Denmark’s Thorbjørn Olesen and Japan’s Ryo Hisatsune.

On 15 occasions since 1999, The Masters Committee has exercised its power to – “at its discretion” – invite international players not otherwise qualified, but only once before, in 2008, have they extended them to three players in one year, according to CBS.

“Today’s announcement represents the Tournament’s continued commitment towards developing interest in the game of golf across the world,” Augusta National Golf Club Chairman Fred Ridley said in a press release.

“We look forward to welcoming each player to Augusta National this spring.”

Niemann will be reunited with a host of LIV Golf stars at the tournament who have already secured their spot on the field, including reigning champion Jon Rahm, who finished four strokes ahead of LIV Golf duo Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson at last year’s event. A total of 88 players made up the field.

Rahm and Koepka join Cameron Smith, long-exempt due to his 2022 Open Championship win, Adrian Meronk and Tyrell Hatton as the only LIV Golf players currently inside the top-50 ranked players, though all five have secured invites due to holding the position last year.

LIV pair Bryson DeChambeau and Patrick Reed are also set to feature due to recent successes. DeChambeau is the 2020 US Open champion, while Reed won The Masters in 2018.

Meanwhile LIV Golf players without such past glories to stamp their tickets to major championships are, like Niemann, crossing the globe in pursuit of alternative routes in.

Dean Burmester and David Puig jetted to South Africa and Malaysia respectively to book their places at the 152nd Open Championship. Burmester won December’s Joburg Open in Johannesburg before Puig clinched the Malaysian Open in Kuala Lumpur earlier this month to secure a spot on the field at Royal Troon, Scotland in July as winners of Open Qualifying Series events.

DP World Tour rookie of the year Hisatsune, 21, will be making his first appearance at Augusta, while 34-year-old Olesen – who finished tied-sixth on his debut in 2013 – is competing at his fourth Masters and his first since 2019.

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