LIV Golf was the other big winner at the Masters

Phil Mickelson reacts on the 18th hole during the final round of the Masters golf tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on Sunday, April 9, 2023, in Augusta, Ga. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

Phil Mickelson carried the mantle for LIV Golf, finishing runner-up. (AP Photo/David J. Phillip)

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Jon Rahm had just walked off the 18th green a Masters champion, striding through a throng of cheering patrons and into the scoring room near Augusta National’s clubhouse. As Rahm finalized his Masters-winning scorecard, Phil Mickelson stood just outside beaming. Fresh off a landmark Masters performance of his own, sporting his HyFlyers LIV Golf gear, Mickelson shook hands and slapped backs, warmly greeting Augusta National’s green jackets by name. He looked like he belonged exactly where he was.

Rahm was the day’s biggest winner. But LIV Golf, the breakaway tour that’s caused a civil war within golf’s ranks, scored a major victory of its own this weekend. Derided as a tour for washed-up former stars and unknowns, a money grab for has-beens and never-was’es, LIV this weekend put three players in the top 6 — Mickelson, Brooks Koepka and Patrick Reed — and 12 players made the cut. Whatever else LIV may be, on this weekend the breakaway tour came up big.

“We’re still the same people,” said Koepka, who held the clubhouse lead for three rounds and three holes. “I think that’s just manufactured by the media that we can’t compete anymore, that we are washed up.”

LIV has spent the last nine months taking body blows in the court of public opinion. Derided as a sportswashing effort for Saudi Arabia’s reputation, mocked for its low attendance and minuscule television ratings, LIV has struggled for attention, much less relevance. A series of actual court decisions have broken against LIV as well, including two this week.

But what LIV won this week was far more important than court proceedings or Golf Twitter approval. LIV’s players proved they have the game to hang with the PGA Tour’s best. And that changes the entire complexion of the LIV-PGA Tour rivalry.

Now, any tournament — like the Masters — that seeks to bring together the best in golf needs to include LIV players. Augusta National may in fact have boxed itself into a corner by so strongly advocating for bringing the best players in the world into one tournament. Where it could have effectively bled out every LIV golfer except for the six champions, now it must reckon with the fact that a no-cut format doesn’t automatically render players noncompetitive and irrelevant.

Beyond that, this weekend could be a substantial boon for LIV in its ongoing attempt for rankings legitimacy. If the Official World Golf Rankings wants to be an accurate measurement of the best players in the world, it will need to find a way to incorporate LIV players.

Koepka acknowledged the difficulty of a solution given LIV’s shorter, no-cut format, which the OWGR has consistently said is a stumbling block for granting LIV full points.

“That’s tough,” he said. “I have no idea how they are going to do it. It definitely makes [the ranking process] more difficult, that’s for sure.”

Mickelson noted that he was grateful for the reception he received, both from the fans and from Augusta National. Sunday evening marked the first hints of the “old” Phil, gregarious and outgoing; he’d spent the entire week virtually silent. He also not-so-subtly pushed for the continued inclusion of his fellow LIV players.

“I’m very appreciative that we’re here, that we are able to play in the majors,” he said. “And I thought it was exciting that this tournament rose above it all to have the best players in the world here and lost all the pettiness; that was great.”

In fact, amid all the good feelings and the happy reunions, there’s really only one loser here: golf fans. It’s clear that there’s substantial talent in the LIV ranks, but the only time golf fans will see them — assuming they don’t tune into LIV broadcasts, which they probably won’t — is four times a year. That’s tough for golf fans to stomach, but it will make the majors — for as long as LIV players qualify for them — all the more meaningful.

“There’s always going to be and should always be a place for historical events like this,” Mickelson said, “but it’s okay to have a little bit of different [formats] and variety in the game of golf.”

Whether people will watch that variety remains to be seen. But it’s clear that LIV carries a lot more weight now than it did Wednesday.

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