FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE
Masters 2023: Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson found heartbreak and hope at Augusta National
Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.
AUGUSTA, Ga. — On Sunday afternoon at Augusta National, shortly after the final twosome teed off in the fourth round of the 87th Masters, Brooks Koepka’s swing coach, Claude Harmon III, stood by the clubhouse and reflected on what would be a defining round for his pupil. “Major championship golf is like the kill zone on Everest,” Harmon said. “A lot of guys are comfortable at Camp IV—they can see the peak from there, but they don’t want the suffer to get to the top. They’re not willing to step over the dead bodies just for the chance to get to the summit. Brooks is comfortable in the chaos. Some guys are, some aren’t. Tiger was, Phil was. Certain guys live for the chaos. Most are afraid of it.”
The ensuing five hours were chaotic in the extreme, with players flying up and down the leaderboard thanks to spectacular and occasionally reckless golf. But as Koepka and playing partner Jon Rahm battled on the final holes, there was a very different feeling upstairs in the clubhouse, in the lounge outside of the champions locker room. The Phil to whom Harmon referred, one Mr. Mickelson, was seated at a table with his college sweetheart, Amy. They were holding hands and cooing at each other, their smiling faces no more than a foot apart. Spent from an epic back nine, Phil radiated contentment. Danny Willett, the 2016 Masters champion, was at a neighboring table, acting like a lad with some of his boys, but the Mickelsons were in their own little world. The intimacy of the moment was breathtaking.
A little while later, Rahm came up the 18th fairway and the cascading cheers reverberated through the clubhouse. The Masters was his. He had reached the mountaintop. Koepka retreated from the moment while Mickelson embraced it; in the end, they tied for second place. The Masters will be remembered for this three-man play, which further defined each of the protagonists.
Rahm, at 28, has now solidified his standing as the best player in the world, adding a green jacket to his 2021 U.S. Open win. He awoke on Sunday trailing Koepka by four strokes in the rain-delayed third round. After the early-morning restart, Koepka missed a 12-foot par putt on the seventh hole and Rahm buried a seven-footer for birdie, slicing the lead in half. They played to a stalemate from there, each shooting a scratchy 38 on the back nine with nary a birdie in chilly conditions. Afterward, Koepka displayed some vintage prickliness with reporters when he was asked how it felt to have his lead cut in half. “Halved? What do you mean halved?” he said. “I started yesterday [with a two-stroke lead]. I’m just spitting facts to you. Don’t know what else to say. I’m in the same spot, yeah.”
When Koepka was the dominant force on the PGA Tour, winning four major championships from 2017 to ’19, he was a brooding, standoffish presence. Some of that was by design. Says Harmon, “He’s like John McEnroe—he needs a foil.” Then a series of serious injuries robbed Koepka of his swagger and left him questioning his future in the game. Last summer he took a mega payday to join LIV Golf, and all the haters and doubters helped him reclaim his mojo. As Koepka recovered from knee surgery he regained his winning ways, taking two LIV tournaments, including the one prior to arriving at Augusta. His airtight play over the first two-plus rounds of this Masters was a reminder that big, bad Brooks is golf’s preeminent anti-hero.
But Koepka hadn’t faced the crucible of being in contention at a major championship since 2021, and in the final round he struggled to control his golf ball and looked tentative with the putter. On the par-3 fourth hole he made bogey after dumping his tee shot in the front bunker, dropping him into a tie with Rahm. On the par-3 sixth, Koepka’s tee shot flew the green and then he nuked his chip well past the hole; he was lucky his ball didn’t roll all the way off the putting surface, but the bogey dropped him out of the lead for the first time since Friday morning. A wild tee shot doomed him to a par on the 8th hole and Rahm’s exquisite greenside pitch led to a birdie and a two-stroke lead.
As Koepka continued to retreat, with bogeys at 9 and 12, Mickelson, incredibly, emerged as the most spirited pursuer, pulled along by his playing partner Jordan Spieth, who began doing Jordan Spieth things. Phil the Thrill missed last year’s Masters, part of his exile from the game for his sneaky dealings in helping to launch LIV and callous comments minimizing the atrocities of the breakaway tour’s financial backers. In the year since he has looked lost, on and off the golf course. But Mickelson hadn’t given up—he dropped 25 pounds in the offseason with a strict diet and has been putting in long hours working on his game. Lately, he has credited LIV teammate Brendan Steele with helping him improve his driving and another HyFlyer, Cameron Tringale, with straightening out his putting. All Mickelson needed was a spark, and the three-time Masters champ found it driving down Magnolia Lane. Asked if being at the Masters is therapeutic, he said, “I would use the word spiritual because, if you love golf, when you come here, it’s more of a spiritual experience, where you feel this appreciation for this great game and the gratitude that you have.”
Mickelson’s former swing coach Butch Harmon once called Augusta National “Phil’s playground,” and this week he turned into his former jaunty self, his recent siege mentality and media-trained stiffness melting away. It helped that Amy was by his side, the first time she had been spotted at one of Phil’s tournaments since the 2021 U.S. Open. (Not for nothing, he recently restored “husband” to his Twitter bio.) On the golf course Mickelson was hitting high-quality shots and describing them with typical relish: “Salty, really salty.” But he kept lamenting he wasn’t scoring well. It wasn’t until the back nine on Sunday that Mickelson put it all together, roaring home with a 31 built on spectacular iron play and institutional knowledge.
The crowds had been ambivalent toward Mickelson earlier in the week but suddenly they were on his side; watching Phil in full flight will always be a thrill. “It felt very, very like eight, nine, 10 years ago,” Spieth said, referring to peak Mickelson and him being the most popular player around Augusta National this side of Arnie. Afterward, Mickelson was openly emotional. His life has been turned upside down over the last year. It took one magical Sunday for Phil to find himself again.
Koepka is not one to claim moral victories, but while this Masters near-miss will sting, it did restore some of his old persona. At the end of the final round Koepka was asked how it felt to put himself on the line once again. “Yeah, look, I love it,” he said. “Just some days you have it, some days you don’t. But I feel good, and I expect to be there [in contention] at the other three.” That would be the PGA Championship, the U.S. Open and the Open Championship. Rahm may have come out on top this time, but for the likes of Koepka, and Mickelson, the chance to experience the delicious chaos is worth the pain.