AUGUSTA, Ga. — After LIV Golf League captain Brooks Koepka failed to hold a 54-hole lead in the final round of the Masters on Sunday, it was fairly obvious what the most oft-told joke would be on social media this week.
Koepka wasn’t used to playing 72 holes.
But after all the pre-Masters discussion about LIV Golf League members not playing in enough tournaments or not competing in high-pressure events, the second-year circuit’s representatives fared pretty well at Augusta National Golf Club.
Koepka, a four-time major championship winner, came up short Sunday, losing to Spain’s Jon Rahm by 4 strokes. Koepka tied for second with three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, another LIV Golf captain, who carded a 7-under 65 in the final round to finish 8 under.
LIV Golf member Patrick Reed, the 2018 Masters champion, tied for fourth at 7 under.
“We’re still the same people,” said Koepka, who missed the cut in his two previous Masters starts while recovering from a serious knee injury. “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.”
Koepka, 32, said earlier this week that if he hadn’t seriously injured his right knee in a fall in March 2021, it would have made his decision to leave the PGA Tour in June more difficult. Before winning last week’s LIV Golf tournament in Orlando, Florida, Koepka hadn’t been playing very well.
LIV Golf players haven’t received world-ranking points for their finishes in events during the breakaway circuit’s first two seasons. That’s part of the reason Koepka fell to 118th in the Official World Golf Ranking, but it was also a product of his mediocre form over the past two seasons.
Koepka rose to 39th in the world rankings after tying for second in the Masters, the first major of the season. It was his fourth runner-up finish in a major and 13th top-five.
“I’ve known this for a while, but I guess it was just a matter of going out and doing it,” Koepka said. “I led for three rounds, and just didn’t do it on the last day, that’s it. Plain and simple.”
Mickelson, 52, had fallen to 425th in the world rankings. He hadn’t won a tournament of any kind since capturing the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island, in which he became the oldest man to ever win a major. He had missed the cut three times and tied for 62nd in four starts in majors since then.
Mickelson wasn’t doing much better on the LIV Golf circuit. He hadn’t finished better than a tie for 27th in three LIV Golf events this year and was in the top 10 in only one of seven stroke-play events last season. He finished 34th in points in LIV Golf’s inaugural season in 2022.
Mickelson was a completely different player in four rounds at Augusta. He had eight birdies in the final round and carded a 5-under 31 on the second nine. It was his fifth top-three and 12th top-five at Augusta National. He rose to 72nd in the world rankings.
“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.”
Last season, Mickelson skipped the Masters and the PGA Championship, an event in which he was the defending champion. He spent four months away from competitive golf after his controversial comments about the PGA Tour and the Saudi Arabian monarchy’s history of human rights abuses were published.
Mickelson said Sunday that he plans to play in the PGA Championship, which is scheduled May 18-21 at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, New York.
Not all of the LIV Golf’s players performed well at Augusta National. Reigning Open Championship winner Cameron Smith tied for 34th at 4 over, after finishing in the top 10 in his past three starts. Dustin Johnson, the 2020 Masters champion, tied for 48th at 8 over.
Past Masters winners Sergio Garcia and Bubba Watson and 2020 U.S. Open champion Bryson DeChambeau missed the cut. Of the 18 LIV Golf players who started in this week’s tournament, 12 made the cut. Four missed the cut, and two withdrew because of injuries or illness.
“I’m happy where I’m at,” Mickelson said. “I wanted something different for a lot of reasons, and I’m getting a lot out of it because having a team environment when I was in high school and college golf, it elevated my game, having players to play with, compete with. It brought a great energy and excitement, and that’s what this is doing for me at LIV. I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it’s been awesome for me, and I love it.”
The next LIV Golf tournament is set to take place April 21-23 at the Grange Golf Club in Australia.
“I’m excited to go play in Australia, but this tournament isn’t about what tour you play from,” Mickelson said. “There’s players from all over, all over the world on many different tours, and you’re bringing the best players to play against each other in the majors. And that’s what it’s all about. That’s what the game of golf should be. There’s always going to be, and should always be, a place for historical events like this, but it’s OK to have a little bit of different and variety in the game of golf.”
And for four rounds in a major championship this week, a few of the LIV Golf players proved they’re still among the best in the sport, even if they’re playing only 54 holes and have shotgun starts.
Harold Varner III, who tied for 29th in the Masters, said before the tournament that he wanted to play well because “everyone thinks we suck now.”
“I guess they don’t suck,” Varner said Sunday. “I suck, though. Not today. Yeah, I think it’s good for golf. Don’t think about any tours, just play golf and see how they stack up.”