AUGUSTA, Ga. — For the 18 LIV golfers teeing it up at Augusta National this week, their preparation has been unlike any other previous Masters. Top players who left for the rival league, such as Cameron Smith, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, have played less tournament golf in the run up to the year’s first major than at this point a year ago on the PGA Tour, many of them getting in about half the competitive rounds. On LIV alone, there have only been three tournaments before the year’s first major.
But the curiosity of whether LIV players will be in “game shape” is only part of the intriguing discussion underway. Whether they’ll be mentally prepared for the week at Augusta National, where the “temperature” toward LIV golfers will be turned up as they practice and play for the first time in the U.S. alongside their former PGA Tour colleagues, will make for a potentially awkward prelude to the tournament.
“It’s tough right now because it is divided,” Brooks Koepka told U.K. outlet I News last week. “But the cool part of this is, the four times a year we are all going to be together, that puts a little more emphasis on the majors. A little more sauce. I’m super excited for it.”
Nothing suggests LIV’s biggest stars won’t be able to compete at Augusta National this week. Quite the contrary. In December, LIV’s prized recruit, Smith, won a DP World Tour event in his native Australia—his fifth victory of 2022, including the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews. Patrick Reed has played six times around the world in 2023, compared to nine tournaments leading up to the 2022 Masters. He battled Rory McIlroy, World No. 1 at the time, in the final round at the Dubai Desert Classic in January and finished second. Abraham Ancer won the Saudi International, a full-field Asian Tour event that featured some PGA Tour stars, including Cameron Young. Carlos Ortiz also won on the Mexico Tour. And on Sunday, Koepka seemed to turn back the clock, looking impressive in holding off all challengers and winning the LIV Golf – Orlando event.
Brooks Koepka's win at the LIV Golf - Orlando event on Sunday provides him with a good deal of momenutm heading to Augusta.
Yet the importance of them playing well is something that’s top of mind for many of LIV’s more high-profile players. Their three 2023 events to date have generated little in the way of buzz among mainstream golf fans, so the opportunity to prove that their level of play remains comparable to the PGA Tour’s elite is one they truly hope to capitalize on.
“First and foremost, for me, I'm trying to go there and play the best golf I can,” Smith said last Thursday following his pro-am at LIV Golf’s Orlando tournament. “Is it important for LIV [golfers to play well at the majors]? … I think it is important for us to go there and really show a high standard of golf, which we know we're all capable of.
“Most of us [LIV golfers] will get four cracks at it this year [in majors], and hopefully we can get a win out of it,” Smith said. “Maybe we just show a really hearty effort. I think for us, internally, it's the right thing. There's a lot of chatter going around about ‘these guys don't play real golf anymore’ and I think it's BS to be honest and we just want show people that.”
Smith’s results so far in 2023—a missed cut at the Saudi International, T-5 at LIV Mayakoba, T-24 at LIV Tucson and T-28 at LIV Orlando—have not been up to his standards. But his glittering record at Augusta may be enough to extract the kind of golf that saw him finish third to Masters champion Scottie Scheffler last year, second to Johnson in 2020, and in the top 10 in two other Masters.
Koepka takes momentum with him from Orlando, but told I News he would have preferred more than three LIV tournaments pre-Augusta. “Being honest, I wish there was more front loading to get ready for Augusta, but that’s part of the learning curve and LIV have done a phenomenal job just listening to the players.”
Golf’s top coaches also wondered whether it would be enough tournament reps to arrive at Augusta sharp. Koepka’s short-game coach, the accomplished Pete Cowen, told The Times in Orlando, “I’m not optimistic about players who aren’t playing competitively on a regular basis,” he said. Simon Dyson, an Englishman who won six times on the European Tour and played in two Masters before going into coaching, said last week at Orlando’s Orange County National: “Would they want two or three tournaments leading up to the Masters in a row? Probably. But this event [Orlando] was placed quite late [in the schedule] to give them more competitive preparation the week before the Masters, which is great.”
Smith, however, said previous Masters had taught him there was no perfect formula. “I've gone [to Augusta] playing well, and I've gone there playing like crap,” Smith said.
“I feel like my game is good,” Reed said, having finished second to McIlroy in Dubai and tying for third this past weekend in Orlando, three back of Koepka after shooting three straight 67s. “I feel like my prep for Augusta has been good. For me, honestly, I don't feel like it's going to be much different. If anything, I just feel like I'll be more rested, have a little bit more prep and be ready to go.”
Added Koepka, who has battled injuries and self-doubt in recent years: “I’m exactly right where I need to be mentally, physically … everything.”
Adam Scott, the 2013 winner at Augusta, said that while the circumstances were unusual, the credentials of LIV’s top players should not be dismissed. “It's just different times, but I certainly think you’ve got to remember Brooks Kopeka, Bryson DeChambeau, Cam Smith, DJ, Louis Oosthuizen, Charl Schwartzel … these are major champions and great players and they still are,” Scott said.
it's uncertain the reception that LIV golfers Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson will get at Augusta, where they have been lauded as past champions.
Kevin C. Cox
But then there’s the elephant in the room: Whether there will be any friction towards LIV recruits, many of whom joined after the 2022 U.S. Open, making this the first time they will have played a PGA Tour-sanctioned event in the U.S. since leaving the rival league.
“It’s only awkward in the media,” contends Bubba Watson. “I’ve talked to people that are going to be there. I’m going to sign up with Jason Day and Cam Young in the par-three. Some guys have already asked me to play some practice rounds. [The] media is the only one that is pushing it.”
“I'm not going to pay attention to it,” Smith said. “I’m going to see some of my old mates and say hello. Everyone I've spoken to has been happy for me. I'm happy with myself, which is probably more important. I'm looking forward to getting back [to Augusta] and seeing familiar faces and competing against the best guys in the world. That's why we have major championships.”
Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, said he didn’t foresee any tension, either. “I mean, we know that's going to be normal,” he said. “Let's be honest at Augusta … it’s one of those places everyone knows they have to be on their best behavior.”
Reed went up with Johnson and fellow LIV golfer Harold Varner to Augusta National two weeks ago to scout the course and its recent changes, including the par-5 13th being stretched by 35 yards.
“To be honest with you when I was there, and I had my Aces stuff on [Reed and Johnson’s LIV team is called the 4 Aces] and they treated me the exact same way. For me, honestly, I don't think it's going to be any different. It's just one of things … like I do every major event I play in, you put your blinders on and once the gun goes off you go play golf and try to win a golf tournament.”
Koepka agreed, saying he mingles with McIlroy, Justin Thomas and other PGA Tour elite at Medalist in Jupiter. Koepka: “I was just with Rory and J.T [last week]. … We see each other quite a bit. I was talking with Rory for probably 30 minutes about the ball and all the other stuff that's going on.”
But Scott said the narrative did add a layer of intrigue to what is already one of golf’s most hyped tournaments.
“The story of … ‘let's see where they're at’ is a good story to see,” he said. “The golf fan in me is interested to see how they all do at the Masters. But it doesn't necessarily mean they're not a great player if they don't have a great week.
“[At the Champions Dinner] I can sense there’s a temperature there … but I hope for everybody's sake, and certainly Scottie Scheffler, that everyone can keep the comments to themselves and we can have a nice evening.”
And what if a LIV golfer contends or even wins on Sunday? Well, LIV Golf CEO Greg Norman predicted that the other 17 LIV golfers would join the new green-jacket winner behind the 18th green and celebrate, an act of pomp and circumstance that would hardly suggest the tension between the two camps is a media creation.
However it shakes out, the 87th Masters is certainly showing the potential to be the most captivating one yet.
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