From Rory’s struggles to Koepka’s resurgence, here’s what we learned at the Masters

From Rory’s struggles to Koepka’s resurgence, here’s what we learned at the Masters

AUGUSTA, Ga. — The 87th edition of the Masters delivered all of the storylines we wanted to see at Augusta National Golf Club this past week.

An aging past champion soared up the leaderboard on Sunday — just not the one many golf fans had hoped. One of the PGA Tour’s biggest stars and a LIV Golf captain battled for a green jacket over the final 18 holes. Little-known Texas A&M senior Sam Bennett, hoping to become the first amateur to ever win the Masters, was in contention for 54 holes.

The first major championship of the 2023 season is in the books. Spain’s Jon Rahm won his second major and became the fourth man from Spain to win the Masters. Phil Mickelson, who became the face of the upstart LIV Golf League’s battle with the PGA Tour, was back in the spotlight in his return to Augusta National.

Our experts take a look at what comes next in men’s professional golf:

What’s next for Tiger Woods?

Mark Schlabach: It was the perfect storm of negative factors that made Tiger’s return to Augusta National Golf Club one to forget. For the second year in a row, Woods struggled on the weekend in cold weather. Making matters worse, the course took on more than 2 inches of rain on Saturday, which made a treacherous walk even more difficult.

After pulling out of the Masters on Sunday morning, Tiger said he aggravated the plantar fasciitis in his right foot. He had problems walking even a few steps from under an umbrella to his ball in the fairway. It was painful to watch. There was no way he could walk 28 holes on Sunday after play had suspended the day before.

I’d be surprised if we see the 15-time major champion at the PGA Championship, the next major, which is set for May 18-21 at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York. The weather in upstate New York is going to be unpredictable, so it could be another tournament played in cold and wet weather. Given Woods’ current physical condition, I wouldn’t be surprised to see him skip the PGA Championship and recover. He could return at the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club on June 15-18.

Paolo Uggetti: It’s hard to imagine a tougher conclusion to Tiger’s first major appearance this year than this one. He barely made the cut, struggled in the cold and rainy conditions Saturday and re-injured his plantar fasciitis that caused him to withdraw on Sunday.

Is it a setback or a reality check? Maybe a little bit of both. Woods has remained adamant he’s likely to only play the majors and maybe an extra event or two at this stage of his career. But with just over a month left until the PGA Championship, it’s unclear whether Woods will be physically ready to play in that event after a premature exit at Augusta due to health issues.

It may not be such a bad thing, though. Woods skipping the PGA could be fortuitous. Not only would he avoid playing in likely more wet and cold weather in Rochester in May, but he’ll have more time to recover in order to try and play well in the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club — a course that fits his game much better — as well Royal Liverpool in Hoylake, where he’s won before. The problem, of course, is that if Woods wants to win again he doesn’t just need good health. He needs more reps too.

What does this Masters mean for LIV Golf?

Schlabach: I don’t know if we learned as much about LIV Golf as we did about Brooks Koepka and Mickelson. Twelve of the 18 LIV Golf League players who were invited to the Masters made the 36-hole cut. Four of them missed the cut and two withdrew because of injuries or illness. There’s no doubt that’s pretty good, and I’m sure it’s going to be a talking point for LIV Golf CEO and commissioner Greg Norman.

Mickelson and Koepka came out of nowhere to tie for second, four strokes behind Rahm. Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, tied for fourth. Chile’s Joaquin Niemann tied for 16th.

“We’re still the same people,” Koepka said. “So I mean, I know if I’m healthy, I know I can compete. I don’t think any of the guys that played this event thought otherwise, either. When Phil plays good, we know he’s going to compete. Reed, the same thing. I think that’s just manufactured by the media that we can’t compete anymore; that we are washed up.”

It wasn’t all good news for LIV Golf at the Masters. Cameron Smith, the reigning Open Championship winner and one of the best players in the world, tied for 34th. Dustin Johnson, who won more than $35 million and was LIV Golf’s inaugural individual champion in 2022, tied for 48th. Past Masters winners Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson and 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau missed the cut.

When Koepka is healthy there are few players better than him in majors. Mickelson caught lightning in a bottle at a course he knows better than most. Ditto for Reed, who attended his final year of college in Augusta and has a green jacket in his wardrobe. None of them had played particularly well in LIV Golf events this year. While I commend them for performing well in the first major of the season, I also wonder if there’s enough tension and drama in LIV Golf tournaments to garner their attention.

Uggetti: While Greg Norman and LIV Golf as a whole may have wanted to turn Masters week into a statement, the week felt more like a reminder of just what LIV has robbed the golf world of.

Mickelson, Koepka and Reed all finished inside the top-10, but the statements they made felt more individual than collective. For Koepka, it reminded the golf world how much of a threat he can be at majors. Reed always seems to play well enough on this course and Mickelson, well, he is a 6-time major winner and three-time winner at Augusta after all.

It’s hard for LIV, in my mind, to utilize as evidence to support their quest, let alone have this result turn into more viewers and attention for the shotgun start, 54-hole tournament. If anything, it’s an indictment to the caliber of LIV events, the courses and the fields, that their best players aren’t exactly thriving on their tour or particularly care about winning unless it’s in service of preparing for what really matters: the majors. Cam Smith said as much this week when he acknowledged LIV fields are not as deep or strong as the PGA Tour’s.

Zoom out and I think the takeaway is clear: LIV players can still thrive and win at major championships and they will no longer be overlooked. But the LIV Tour? I can’t see this improving the quality of the product nor the likelihood that Mickelson’s rise to the top of the leaderboard, or Koepka’s near victory, get anyone to turn on the CW. Not when you have Jim Nantz getting jokes off at your expense.

Who was the biggest surprise of Masters week?

Schlabach: Thumbs up to Mickelson, who picked up his fifth top-three finish and 12th top-five at Augusta National. I didn’t think he had anything left in the tank. Like Woods did in the 2019 Masters, Mickelson turned back the clock and rekindled the magic that helped him win a green jacket three times.

Mickelson, 52, started the final round at 1-under, 10 shots behind Koepka. When he sank an 11-foot birdie on the 72nd hole, his fifth birdie in the final seven holes, he was 7-under, just 3 shots behind Rahm. It was the best final round by a player over 50 in Masters history. He is the oldest player to finish in the top five. It was Mickelson’s best final round in a storied career at Augusta National.

It’s hard to decipher whether this was the start of yet another act for Mickelson or the final chapter. After carding a 3-under 69 in the second round, Mickelson said he was “close to going on a tear.” There was little reason to believe him. Since defecting to the LIV Golf League, he had one top-10 finish in 10 stroke-play events. This season, he’s finished 27th, 32nd and 41st, with only three of nine rounds in the 60s.

Mickelson no longer acts or looks like the player who was simply known as “Lefty” during his Hall of Fame career. Instead of joking about hitting “bombs,” he talks about drinking coffee, which he says has led to his considerable weight loss. For four days in Augusta, however, Mickelson played like the man that was once adored.

“I’m hopeful that this kind of catapults me into playing the rest of the year the way I believe I’m playing,” Mickelson said. “I really worked hard in the offseason to get ready. I’ve been shooting some really low scores at home, and today I kind of let it happen rather than trying to force it, and I had a really good day and made some noise.

“Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, but it was really a lot of fun for me to play at this level again, and it’s encouraging for me going forward the rest of the year.”

We’ll have to wait until the next LIV Golf tournament on April 21-23 at the Grange Golf Club in Australia to find out.

Uggetti: Koepka. Perhaps there’s a mea culpa to be had by all when it comes to him. The four-time major winner dominated the golf world not too long ago and, after hearing about his journey back to good health, his ability to compete at Augusta and nearly outlast the No. 1 player in the world makes complete sense and gives context to his win drought even before he bolted to LIV Golf.

“I’m healthy so it’s completely different,” Koepka said. “If somebody’s not healthy, they can’t compete. I just wash those two years in my head.”

Though he didn’t ultimately don the green jacket Sunday, it’s safe to say Koepka emerged as a bit of a winner in other ways after Augusta. Not only did he show his game is back to major championship form, but he opened up during his press conference about his gruesome knee injury while also refusing to lean into the rah-rah mentality that some LIV players (and Norman) were touting.

In fact, Koepka himself said this week his decision to switch tours may have been different had he remained healthy. His reality remains playing in lackluster LIV events, but when it comes to majors Koepka will no longer be a surprise should he perform well. Maybe that’s the way it should have been all along.

Who was the biggest disappointment?

Schlabach: Of all the former PGA Tour members who left for LIV Golf, Smith was probably the most surprising to me. He had just won the 150th Open Championship at St. Andrews and was the No. 2-ranked player in the world. The Australian is 29 years old and at the height of his career.

Smith won the second LIV Golf tournament he played and captured the Australian PGA Championship in November. He hasn’t done much of anything since. He missed the cut at the Saudi International and finished sixth, 26th and 29th in the first three LIV Golf events this year.

Smith, now ranked fifth in the world, tied for 34th at the Masters this week, after finishing in the top 10 in each of his past three starts at Augusta National. At least he did turn in the shot of the tournament on Friday. After hitting his 292-yard drive into a fairway bunker on the 570-yard fifth hole, Smith had 257 yards left and hit a fairway bunker out of the sand. The ball was well below his feet, but he somehow managed to knock it on the green. He sank a 17-footer for eagle.



Cam Smith’s miraculous bunker shot sets up eagle

Cam Smith somehow gets a ball within feet of the hole from a fairway bunker, setting up a short eagle putt.

Uggetti: Rory McIlroy There was an abundance of expectations surrounding McIlroy heading into this week at the Masters. Even Tiger Woods himself said it’s only a matter of time before McIlroy wins the Masters.

McIlroy himself didn’t exactly shy away from those expectations, even going as far as to say he felt like he had shed some of the scar tissue at Augusta after backdooring his way into a second-place finish last year. But instead, McIlroy played “untidy” golf by his own admission and didn’t seem to have anything resembling his best stuff all week. He missed nearly 50 percent of greens in regulation and had a particularly poor putting day on Friday on his way to missing the cut.

It’s the furthest thing from what was expected of McIlroy, who, in the face of the first major (the only one he needs for the grand slam) and the first meeting of both LIV players and PGA Tour players, simply did not show up.

“I feel like I am as good, if not better a player, as I was the last time I won a major championship,” McIlroy said coming into the week. “I’ve been knocking on the door for that fifth one for a while.”

The PGA Championship is the next major on the schedule. Who is going to win?

Schlabach: Oak Hill Country Club’s East Course last hosted a PGA Championship in 2013, when Jason Dufner defeated Jim Furyk by 2 strokes. Jack Nicklaus (1980) and Shaun Micheel (2003) won the other PGA s that were played there. The course underwent a restoration in 2013. The project involved the removal of many trees and even a pond. There’s also an entirely new par-3 fifth hole.

I picked Cameron Young to win the PGA Championship in my way-too-early majors predictions in July. I’ll stick with the New York native. Young hasn’t yet won on the PGA Tour but he’s one of the most talented players in the world. He already has three top-10s in majors, tying for third at the 2022 PGA Championship at Southern Hills, finishing solo second at St. Andrews and tying for seventh at the Masters.

Uggetti: Perhaps against my own better judgment, I’m still betting on Rory to play well in tough conditions at a place where he’s a member. Despite his disappointing week in Augusta, his game is still good enough to win. He can’t, however, get off to another slow start. McIlroy has put himself behind the 8-ball way too often at majors or during specific rounds (see last year’s Open final round) and has hoped his game would bail him out. So far that hasn’t worked at majors, but Oak Hill should give Rory some advantage in the form of familiarity come May. He’s been playing too well lately (Augusta notwithstanding) to not get close to winning another major this year.

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