FIRE PIT COLLECTIVE

Masters 2023: LIV Golf shows life at Augusta National

Editor's Note: This article first appeared in Fire Pit Collective, a Golf Digest content partner.

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AUGUSTA, Ga. — This may not rise to a level of success that would get Charlie Sheen’s attention—WINNING!—but LIV Golf is having a good week at the 87th Masters.

The tournament’s most dominant player has been Smash (his LIV team) star Brooks Koepka, who is 12 under par through 36 holes, without doing anything, by his standards, that incredible.

The tournament’s most-discussed caddie is Koepka’s man, Ricky Elliott, who mouthed the five heard ’round the world on the 15th hole in the first round. It looked like an obvious violation of a fundamental golf rule—don’t give or solicit information—but tournament rules officials decided to give Team Koepka a big ol’ pass. Now that’s power, LIV-style!

And in the old Fred Couples role (guy in his 50s playing incredible golf at Augusta) Phil Mickelson, at 52, is suddenly in from the cold. The HyFlyers (his LIV Golf team) captain has played two wildly entertaining rounds of slim-man golf and is four under par through two rounds.

Phil! A three-time winner of this tournament, who did not play last year’s event (when he was in the golf establishment’s cushy dog house), played the first two rounds in nine fewer shots than noted LIV critic Rory McIlroy, who will miss the 36-hole cut after rounds of 72 and 77.

Fred Ridley, the club’s chairman, never uttered the words LIV Golf, when he spoke to reporters on Wednesday. (Nor did he say, “The rebel golf league which shall go unnamed.”) Ridley did say, “The tone has been really good here this week. I’ve noticed the players are interacting.”

The players are interacting!

Like many squabbles, soap operas and various real-life dramas, things consume us for a while until the day comes when we’re worn out of it, whatever it is, and we care no more.

For a while, the PGA Tour’s objection to LIV Golf was the connect-the-dots murder, by dismemberment, of The Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.

I can barely type no-cut, 48-man field, 54-hole events with any that’s-not-golf anymore, even though that’s what I believe. Not tournament golf, anyway.

Well, maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about.

The tour has moved, with wild speed, in LIV’s direction, in terms of purse size, reducing the field and a set number of “elevated” events guaranteed to get your attention.

Last year, at the U.S. Open at The Country Club, Mickelson looked like a ghost of his former self. I have great empathy, I have great empathy, I have great empathy.

You wanted to scream at his handlers, “What have you done with Phil Mickelson?!”

Phil the Thrill, at least for this week, is doubling down on the two things he is undeniably good at: playing golf and talking about golf.

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Twice in his first round, Mickelson hit driver off the deck, once off pine straw. He played one shot right-handed. (You may know that he’s a lefty.) He still wears those thick alligator belts that seem to belong to another part of his life, but he looks remarkably fit and strong and alert. He said the key to his weekend play would be “slowing my mind down.” That was the most striking thing about his play in 2020, when he won the PGA Championship at age 50. You could see in his walk, in his gum-chewing, in his interactions with his caddie-brother, that his mind was processing information with a certain and distinct slowness.

He was asked if he considered his return to Augusta National “therapeutic.”

“I would use the word more 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 said on Friday afternoon after a second-round 69.

I mean, come on. That’s lovely.

Augusta National gets a lot of things right. The winner this week will get $2.7 million. That’s a lot of money. But all people talk about is the tee shot on 13, the putt from above the hole on 17 and how hard it is to close out a win here. Tiger Woods knows all about that.

The LIV-PGA Tour divide is and always was about money. It’s also about loyalty, tradition, gratitude, familiarity, geo-politics and some other things. But as every strike is, in the end, about money, so is this dispute. It’s boring. Maybe I should say, I’m bored of it.

This weekend will be all about golf.

You like golf, right?

Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com