This year’s Masters lingers vividly in my northern reaches. Maybe you’re feeling the same thing. Such a residency is not a given. We are promised a Masters each April, not a memorable one. But this year’s tournament had all manner of plots and subplots through the week and by nightfall on Sunday the tournament had the winner it deserved, Jon Rahm.
It also had two memorable second-place finishers, Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson, and they engendered a range of emotions.
A Koepka win would have been a disaster. I consider even his runner-up status a sham, an insult to the tournament and the game, something, if you focus on it at all, that should trouble anybody who cares about golf. What happened in broad daylight on the 15th hole in the first round, and in the privacy of a meeting with rules officials after the round, is confounding and upsetting. It shows the fault line between the Masters and its custodians, clinging to a worthy ideal of pure sport that is under siege, and the culture in which we all now live. It is not a pretty picture.
But first let’s celebrate Rahm, here at the top of this tourney-in-review. Rahmbo (the nickname is right on his yardage-book cover, shoved in his back-right pocket) is most likely the largest man ever to win the Masters, in terms of the cubic millimeters he occupies. He’s large in personality, too. He’ll wear the green well.
When he first won at Augusta in 1963, Jack Nicklaus was given the 46L sport coat that belonged to Thomas E. Dewey, the New York governor. Arnold Palmer, the ’62 winner, held it for him. Big Jack swam in that jacket. Rahm’s new green coat is a 46R. He’ll fill it and then some. He needs a big hat, too, for reasons both literal and figurative. There is art in the shots he plays, the words he uses, the observations he makes, the questions he asks. We’re always drawn to that, the thinking golfer. The golfer in full. He’s 28.
Yes, I’m a fan. Reporters can be fans. Most people who write about golf play, too. (I have a writer friend whose email address starts with igolfbadly.) Every writer at work at the Masters on Easter Sunday was typing some sort of passion play.
The more time I log in this game, the more I consider how the reigning Masters champion will represent the game and its annual rite-of-spring tournament for eternity. The new winner has bells on his toes. The Masters shrinks the golf world for a week, admirably so. That’s right in Rahm’s sweet spot. That’s what he does.
This game of ours is rich with values and traditions that matter to millions of us, including Jon Rahm. We have inherited the best of those values and traditions, those that have stood the test of time and changing societal mores. The Masters shines a bright light on those values and traditions, and it puts its winners, often for good and sometimes for ill, on a pedestal.
Bob Goalby (coated in ’68) was one of the finest people you could know. Warm and observant. As for Angel Cabrera (’09), it’s hard to imagine him making a triumphant return to the Masters field, at least for now. He’s in prison in Argentina on an assault conviction. But who knows? As Fred Ridley said at his annual state-of-the-game Masters press conference, never say never.
The Augusta National chairman was talking about, just then, whether Greg Norman would be invited back to the Masters, as many former major champions are. This year Norman was not invited, just as he was not invited to last year’s dinner for former Open Championship winners at St. Andrews. (What a weird move. That does not sound like the R&A that I know.) Will Norman be at next year’s Masters? Next year’s Masters is a long way away. The world changes more in 12 months these days than it used to change in 12 years. And here comes AI.
For now, Norman, a two-time Open winner with eight top-five finishes at Augusta National, is in the golf establishment’s doghouse, on account of starting a league (LIV Golf) that has recruited some major talent from the PGA Tour, including Koepka and Mickelson. LIV Golf gets so little network TV time I have heard golf-savvy people say L-I-V Golf, even though it’s of course LIV, as in “live and let die.” It’s not just a Bond song anymore. Alan Shipnuck has borrowed the Wings hit for his next book title, while dropping the first e. Yes, a sequel of sorts to his 2022 book, Phil.
Mickelson (as you probably know) is a three-time winner at Augusta. A winner at Augusta is an honorary member of the club. But Mickelson, because of his LIV ties, was dissuaded from playing in or even attending last year’s Masters. All that made his second-place showing this year, with a closing 65 and a birdie-birdie finish, even more remarkable. He wore his LIV Golf team hat into his post-round press conference on Sunday. Mickelson (you may not know) is the captain of the HyFlyers Golf Club. I’ve never seen a player wear a hat inside the press building at Augusta National. It does violate club tradition. But, you know: Phil.
Arnold and Jack are the only former Masters winners who became dues-paying members of the club. Palmer went to his grave treasuring his membership. The stamp of the golf establishment, and acceptance from accomplished businessmen, meant more to him than the public would know. Who doesn’t crave some measure of validation? Arnold did as we all do.
Arnold’s win in ’62 made Nicklaus’ first Masters win in ’63 a big and grand occasion, coming nine months after Palmer’s loss to Nicklaus in the ’62 U.S. Open at Oakmont. That 18-hole playoff, and how both men handled it—the class they both exhibited after fiercely trading shots—shaped their relationship and their lives.
Arnold was invited to join Augusta National in 1999, paving the way for Jack’s invitation two years later. Arnold and Jack. Billy Payne, Ridley’s predecessor as chairman, once called Arnold a “great man.” We always want to god-up our heroes even though we should all know better. But Arnold was one of a kind and when he looked you in the eye it was as if there was nothing else going on in the world.
Just as Arnold paved the way for Jack, Jack paved the way for Tom Watson. Watson paved the way for Tiger Woods.
At Augusta, you can draw lines all day long, from one winner to another. In that vein, Gene Sarazen begat Sam Snead. (Both were self-taught in every sense.) Byron Nelson begat Ben Crenshaw. (Two Texas gents with a shelf-life of forever.) Seve Ballesteros begat Jon Rahm—two Spaniards teeming with Basque spirit. There’s something in the Basque soil and air, in the water, in its sportsmen. Jose Maria Olazabal is in this conversation, too. Of course, of course.
I am charmed by Rahm’s indifference to fashion and tailoring, and am drawn to his temper and brio. I cannot relate to his swing and its disregard for the speed limit, but who among us can? Maybe Nick Price. His swing was a blur too.
Price would have been a great Masters winner. I can see him, in my mind’s eye, in the Tuesday night supper-club group photo, laughing about something while sandwiched between Woosie (Ian Woosnam) and Chema (Olazabal). Not everybody who should win does, of course. Here’s looking at you, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, Ken Venturi. Ed Sneed. Man, Ed Sneed. Venturi once said to him, “I so admire the way you mark the ball.” Something like that. Golf and life turn on itty-bitty things as much as big and grand ones.
A week or more after our annual virtual visit to Butler Cabin, this year featuring Rahm, Scottie Scheffler, the low amateur Sam Bennett, plus two old reliables, Jim Nantz and Fred Ridley, I find myself thinking way too much about the two second-place finishers. That almost never happens. Especially when it’s not even close: Koepka and Mickelson finished four shots behind Rahm.
I mean, this wasn’t Norman and Nicklaus in ’86. There wasn’t any shot-for-shot Sunday tension. Gary Player used to say that only your wife and your dog will remember your second-place finishes. Still, this year we all know the runner-up finishers. The two LIVsters.
Let’s consider Mickelson first. He won the PGA Championship at 50 in 2021, making him the oldest player to win a major. Now he’s 52. To shoot eight under at 52 at Augusta is astounding. Mickelson has been one of the best players in the game for more than 30 years. The longevity alone is mind-bending. For excellence over the years, the only golfers in his class are Snead, Nicklaus and Watson. Mickelson is in the pantheon. There has never been a golfer like him. He has a strong sense of impish fun. In recent years, in his public life, he has had a sort of makeover, from goofy Phil to bad-ass Phil. He was never simple Phil. He’s hard to get a handle on. Nobody can say, Oh, I know someone just like Phil. No such person exists.
But the way he turned his back on the PGA Tour, in the pursuit of a giant and guaranteed payday, it leaves you cold. Maybe I should say, it leaves me cold.
Mickelson owns his talent, his drive, his work ethic. Of course he does. But like all elite golfers, he needed stages to show off all that talent and ability. Enter the Southern California Golf Association, the USGA, the NCAA, the PGA of America, the R&A, Augusta National, the PGA Tour. There’s no way to measure what those institutions did for him. They made his golfing life possible.
I can understand that Mickelson felt frustrated by the piece of the pie he was getting from the PGA Tour’s purses. (You might reasonably ask, “But wasn’t he getting enough?” You have your answer, and Phil has his.) I can understand he was frustrated that he felt ignored by various PGA Tour commissioners. But when he signed up for and recruited (per various credible reports) players for a professional golf tour that was a direct threat to the PGA Tour, the tour to which Rahm pledged his “fealty,” he showed, to me, an astonishing lack of gratitude and historical awareness and even I’m-in-the-pantheon responsibility.
Chris Trotman/LIV Golf
The Saudi funding of LIV Golf only makes things more complicated.
In a charming interview Ridley did with high school students in early April, and in remarks he made in his pre-tournament press conference, the club chairman spoke of his 180-year-old law firm, Foley & Lardner. (Lynford Lardner played golf at Harvard and was a president of the USGA.) Lardner and the many partners who preceded Ridley made Ridley’s career possible. What Ridley and his partners have done and will do will shape future careers at the firm. There’s a lot to be said for continuity, for handing down tradition and custom.
Mickelson has done amazing things to breathe life into the PGA Tour, but the PGA Tour, for all its flaws, was the mother’s milk of his career. In his early 50s, he turned his back on it. Arnold made Phil’s life possible. Phil seems to be looking out just for Phil. That’s a statement on modern life as much as it is Phil Mickelson and the PGA Tour. This has been said often of Arnold Palmer: He always put the game first. It served Arnold well, and golf, too.
You may take what I say with a grain of salt. We are all conflicted by our affiliations, our heartstrings, our wallets, our prejudices. I grew up on the PGA Tour like I grew up on National League baseball that emphasized speed and fielding and bowling alleys where you did your own arithmetic. I worked for 22 years at Sports Illustrated, a jewel in the Time Inc. crown. The Wikipedia entry for Time Inc. starts with “Time Inc. was …” I miss what we had and what Time Inc. gave the reading public. Collectively, we did something wrong.
So maybe Mickelson has done more good for the PGA Tour than we could possibly know, though I am doubtful. Golf to me is a niche sport. The pro game is strutting around right now like it’s the second coming of the Premier League. And night golf in a stadium is coming. Turn up the volume. My fealty is to the four Grand Slam events, the three senior majors, the four women’s majors, the British and U.S. Amateurs. Plus my own little doings. This LIV Golf-PGA Tour divide is a litmus test of one’s value systems. There’s no one answer.
Hilton Head was great this year. Two U.S. Open winners in a playoff, Matthew Fitzpatrick over Jordan Spieth. There’s a nod to Phil, somewhere in that playoff. A nod to Phil and Norman and the Saudi money spigot they opened. (So much of life is indirect.) But it was expensive, getting those two golfers to that playoff in what used to be a low-key PGA Tour event, a needed hangout after the Masters. Somebody is going to pay the bills for all these “designated” events. That somebody is you.
Is bigger better? We shall see. I liked the old driving range at Augusta. It was intimate.
I don’t believe anything fatal has happened here. As AI becomes more of a mainstay in our life, with predictable and perfect outcomes, the beautiful tension and human randomness that is at the essence of the tournament golf experience will only become more appealing. That is true, if—if, if, if—golf can hold on to its most important values, starting with equal opportunity under the law. That is, the rulebook. Tournament golf without players we can trust would be pure chaos. There would be no reason to care.
So that gets us to the events on 15 with the Brooks Koepka-Gary Woodland-Danny Willett threesome during the first round of the 87th Masters. That event, and any others like it, represents a serious threat to the game, both in terms of what happened, and what it implies. I’m surprised the outrage has been so muted.
It seems obvious to me (and to everybody I have asked) that Koepka violated a fundamental rule on the par-5 hole after playing his second shot with a 5-iron.
His caddie, Ricky Elliott, clearly mouthed the word five twice to Gary Woodland’s caddie, Brennan Little, as they crossed paths in the fairway. You could see it on the broadcast. Elliott has almost an aggressive expression on his face as he says it the second time.
It’s disturbing because sharing what club a player hit is the quintessential example of giving advice. And on that shot? With a pond short of the green, a pond over the green and nothing but trouble left of the green? It’s one of the most challenging shots in tournament golf. The more information you have, the better. This is not idle chatter. This is inside information. It tilts the whole beautiful concept of the level playing field.
Whenever there’s a rules debacle in professional golf, look for motivation as you seek to understand it. Look for motivation, and look for opportunity. In this instance, if you give information, you are making a deposit, to get information later. Quid pro quo, tour-style. That is not elite professional golf. It’s revolting.
It doesn’t matter that it was Koepka’s caddie who mouthed five and not Koepka. (As for the five-finger wave from Koepka, to me he looked like he was taking off his glove and nothing more.) Per the rules, the caddie is an extension of the player. It doesn’t matter whether Woodland used the information. Had Little asked for information, that adds to the mess. A player gets two shots for asking and two shots for giving, solicited or unsolicited.
If Little was looking into Koepka’s bag, trying to figure out what club Koepka had just hit, that’s allowed by the rules, and not, in any way, a violation of golf protocol. From the broadcast clip of the shot, there’s no way to know what Little was doing. So that leaves his word. That’s an important concept in golf. By tradition, the player’s word, and by extension the caddie’s word, is to be trusted.
And that is what is so troubling here. The tournament’s rules officials did not impose a two-shot penalty on Koepka. The available evidence shows he should have been penalized. Had there been some credible extenuating circumstance for why Elliott twice mouthed the word five, Augusta National’s rules and media officials would have relayed that information to the millions of fans around the world watching the tournament. They didn’t.
Anybody can make a logical and educated guess as to what happened, and that’s what this is. Despite the video evidence, Elliott and Koepka, when meeting with rules officials after the round, denied giving information. (That is, advice.) The officials, taking their cues from the club’s president in perpetuity, Bobby Jones, accepted their word.
“Following the completion of Brooks Koepka’s round, the committee questioned his caddie and others in the group about a possible incident on number fifteen,” Jim Hyler, the chair of the competition committees, said in a statement after the round. “All involved were adamant that no advice was given or requested. Consequently, the committee determined that there was no breach of the rules.”
But we all saw it!
That’s the challenge modern golf faces, as it starts (unfortunately) to resemble modern life. Traditional golf, Masters golf, was built on a foundation of do-the-right-thing. And, by the way, if you don’t, somebody—the guy you’re playing with, a spectator, a TV viewer–will call you out on it. Or your guilt will eat away at you and you’ll never make another cut, so that fear alone will get you to do the right thing. Players have cited that as a motivator over the years.
But over the past decade, we’ve seen the rise of this message, from player to official, and please pardon the vulgarity: You don’t have the balls to give me two shots, to call me a liar.
Was there an act of cheating?
You saw the clip.
Was there post-round lying?
You read the statement.
It makes no sense because it makes no sense.
At Torrey Pines in 2021, Patrick Reed called over a rules official for an embedded ball ruling after he had picked up his ball. As a starting point, that makes no sense whatsoever. He then said to the rule official, a former tour player named Brad Fabel, “Hey, bud. They say it didn’t bounce and so I checked it and I believe it broke ground. But I’m going to let you make that call.”
But I’m going to let you? The presumptuousness is astounding, and … the ball had been moved!
Fabel allowed Reed to play on without penalty, but his work had been compromised before he got there. Soon after that event, Fabel retired.
If that episode embarrassed Reed, there was no sign of it. If his episode at Tiger’s event in the Bahamas in 2019 embarrassed him—he was given two shots for seemingly improving his lie in a waste area—there was no sign of it.
In 2013, in the second round of the Masters, Woods took an incorrect drop on the 15th hole. He wasn’t, in any way, trying to cheat, but he did complete the drop in the wrong way. He signed an incorrect scorecard, which then was an automatic disqualification. The only thing that saved him was that Masters officials could have questioned Woods about the drop before he signed his card—on the basis of a broadcast clip they had—but they didn’t. In other words, broadcast footage saved Woods. Tournament officials, in a code Bobby Jones would have surely recognized, went out of their way to be fair to Woods. He could have met them halfway. He could have put the tournament and golf’s tradition of fair play ahead of his own desires and needs. He didn’t. If he was embarrassed, there was no sign of it.
I’m not saying the slippery slope began then and there because I don’t know when it did. But that was a bad moment for golf.
Many people will say: Who cares about one embedded ball or a few grains of sand in a waste area? Who cares about one mouthed five? Who cares about a drop that’s off by a couple of feet?
For us? Nobody cares. There are two games. The game they play cannot have one rulebook for one player and another one for another. Golf is not a game of catch me if you can and give me the shots if you have the balls to do it. That’s what makes golf golf.
In the past 10 years, the USGA and the R&A have made tournament golfers less responsible for their scorecards. Let’s say you were the only person in the world who saw, on TV, Elliott mouth the word five. Per semi-recent changes, you can’t make a call and alert an official to that.
Those calls used to be permitted because the underlying idea was that players would want to know if they had done something wrong. Can you imagine how honest tax returns could be if any of us could examine anybody else’s return? It was along those lines. The rules came first because everything in serious tournament golf begins with the rules. The rulebook creates a level playing field. The guys on 15 are sharing information, but the guys on 16 are not. What’s level about that?
This is fundamental.
My late friend Gwen Knapp, in a farewell column for the San Francisco Chronicle some years ago, wrote this:
“Without the belief that sports have some higher value than entertainment, they forfeit their special place in our culture. For all the flaws of sports, they represent the purest meritocracy we have.”
Yep. Yep, yep, yep.
Michael Bamberger welcomes your comments at Bamberger@firepitcollective.com