The use of sporting rivalry as a proxy for battles between light and darkness is nothing new. In their own way, Coe versus Ovett, Borg versus McEnroe, Senna versus Prost and Lewis versus Tyson were all framed as just wars that pitted the righteous man against the fallen angel.
At the US Masters this week, the song will be the same. Except there will not just be one fallen angel to root against. There will be 18 of them.
The beautifully, meticulously manicured hills and valleys of Augusta National will be recast as a garden of good and evil in the days ahead as the civil war that is gripping golf gears up for another battle and the renegades of the LIV Golf tour gird themselves for trying to produce a winner from their ranks and score a powerful public relations coup for a lavish but ailing project that is in dire need of resuscitation.
On the other side of the divide, Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler, the defending champion, will strive to uphold the consensus that the PGA Tour represents not just the pre-eminent talent pool in golf but also the soul of the sport.
They have successfully portrayed LIV as a substandard tour for mercenaries who let greed obscure their love of the game and have withered because of it.
The likes of Rory McIlroy (pictured), Jon Rahm and Scottie Scheffler will strive to uphold the consensus that the PGA Tour represents the soul of the sport at the Masters this week
It would be a heavy blow for the game if defending champion Scheffler (pictured after his win last year) eases the arms of a LIV Golf player into a green jacket in the Butler Cabin on Sunday
A LIV player winning this week would be like if Newcastle United won the Premier League
If Scheffler eases the arms of a LIV Golf player into a green jacket in the Butler Cabin on Sunday, it will be a heavy blow for the game.
It would be like Newcastle United winning the Premier League. It would be a victory for the bloody, brutal, homicidal autocracy of Saudi Arabia which bankrolls both ventures and which desperately needs high-profile sportswashing successes to justify its obscene, deeply cynical investments.
Let’s not forget that when the drama plays out this week at this course that is sport’s most beautiful natural amphitheatre.
Let’s not forget that when we talk about the awkwardness that will linger around the Champions Dinner tonight when LIV golfers such as Dustin Johnson, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson mingle with Tiger Woods, Scheffler and so many other greats of the game.
The LIV players are not bad people — and many of them believe passionately they are doing what is best for their families as well as themselves — but they are stooges.
They are being used, blatantly and unashamedly, by a repressive regime that murders journalists in cold blood, imprisons women’s rights activists, criminalises same-sex relationships, has killed tens of thousands in an illegal war in Yemen and regularly indulges in mass executions.
Yes, there are nuances here, too. The DP World Tour, in a previous incarnation, once held a sanctioned event in Saudi Arabia. They were not too shy about taking Saudi money then. And there is also an argument that the PGA Tour’s opposition to LIV Golf has less to do with moral concerns and much, much more to do with trying to squash a business rival under the cover of moral concerns.
LIV players are not bad people but they are stooges and being used by a repressive regime (former champions Patrick Reed and Dustin Johnson pictured)
That may be the case but it does not alter the fact that a win for a LIV golfer at Augusta would be a win for Saudi Arabia, it would be a win for the repression it practises and it would be a win for its burgeoning attempts to use sport as a weapon to distract attention from its policies towards its own citizens. That is what will play out here in rainy Georgia over the next few days.
In that context, what golf needs most this week is for McIlroy, 33, to win the Masters. McIlroy needs McIlroy to win the Masters, too. He needs it to complete the career Grand Slam that his talent deserves.
He needs it to end the nine-year drought since his last Major victory, he needs it to re-establish himself as the sport’s leading talent and he needs it to propel himself into what could be a golden phase of his career. But golf still needs him to win it more.
McIlroy — who is trying to join Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Ben Hogan and Gene Sarazen in the list of golf’s Grand Slam winners — has been the PGA Tour’s leader in the battle against LIV’s incursions.
The fact that he and Woods refused the insanely lucrative offers that LIV threw at them and chose to stay with the golf establishment was critical in preventing LIV from capturing the imagination of the public and leaving them floundering when it came to negotiating broadcasting deals and creating a public footprint.
But, just as Greg Norman, LIV’s outspoken chief executive, is salivating about the prospect of one of his players winning the Masters and claiming that, if it happens, all 18 rebel players will celebrate the victory together on the 18th green in front of the grand old Augusta clubhouse, so the golf establishment knows how powerful it would be if McIlroy slew the dragon and won the tournament.
That is the PGA Tour’s dream scenario. It would be the most potent symbol of their superiority over a rival tour that has been portrayed as a gold-plated circus, predicated on a series of gimmicks, played out at substandard courses with substandard fields, a retirement tour for washed-up players who have lost the appetite to compete at the top. Victory for a LIV player here at Augusta would make the perpetuation of that portrayal close to untenable.
McIlroy needs McIlroy to win the Masters to complete the Grand Slam his talent deserves
‘There have been insults recently that LIV is not “real golf”,’ Norman said at the weekend, ‘and I get truly miffed by that hypocrisy. Rory McIlroy implied we were opening some kind of circus and that LIV is an “exhibition”. And yet, on his and Tiger Woods’s advice the PGA Tour goes ahead and does the same in doing their limited-field events with more money. Where’s the consistency, right?’
The stakes are high for McIlroy. In the circumstances perhaps it was natural that he should turn for inspiration to a young tennis player, US Open champion Carlos Alcaraz, 19, who is trying to preserve his joy in playing a game amid all the pressures that come with professional sport. McIlroy has been reading transcripts of Alcaraz’s press conferences.
‘Carlos says his aim is always to play with “joy and instinct”, McIlroy told the Telegraph. ‘That’s fantastic, isn’t it? Listen to that — “joy and instinct”. What a lovely, beautiful and very plain ambition to have.
‘It is what every kid has when they first play a sport and what invariably then gets lost when the really good ones progress and turn professional. The joy goes. The instinct gets lost.’
McIlroy will try to channel that this week, he will try to trust his instinct and keep the joy, but it will not be easy. He is not just fighting for himself and the long yearned-for completion of his career Grand Slam at Augusta.
He is fighting for the PGA Tour, the game of golf and for the beauty of sport itself.
Why Pep may live to regret goading Reds
When Pep Guardiola was questioned about the way he taunted Liverpool substitutes Kostas Tsimikas and Arthur Melo after Manchester City’s first goal during the match between the two sides on Saturday, some accused the celebration police of interfering in the spontaneity of football again.
I’m all for spontaneity so I look forward to the moment an opponent scores against City in a huge game, runs straight over to Guardiola, gets in his face, tells him how beautiful the goal was and tries to shake his hand.
It’s just a hunch but my guess is Guardiola might not be quite so relaxed about spontaneity if he were to be on the receiving end of it.
Pep Guardiola might not appreciate if he was goaded in the same manner that he taunted Liverpool’s substitutes Kostas Tsimikas and Arthur Melo in their 4-1 victory on Saturday
Joshua missing his mojo
In a heavyweight division where boxers seem to spend more time ducking each other than fighting each other, it seemed apt that the best action in Anthony Joshua’s fight with Jermaine Franklin at the O2 on Saturday night came after the final bell.
Joshua looks like a man who is missing his mojo and, in a sport as dangerous and unforgiving as boxing, that can be the worst loss of all.
Anthony Joshua defeated Jermaine Franklin but looked like a man who was missing his mojo