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RAHM WINS FOR ALL THE RIGHT REASONS, BUT MICKELSON AND KOEPKA LIV ON
A bizarre, weather-ravaged Masters ended with the coronation of the Spaniard, the world’s best golfer — unfortunately, he had to share the Augusta spotlight with two detestable PGA Tour defectors
Tempting as it is to describe this as an existential lesson — good over evil, purism over Saudi sportswashing, a pristine Jon Rahm over Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson and other greed-soiled bastards who took the blood money — it really wasn’t that. This is what Sunday was: The world’s premier golfer survived the most wicked meteorological challenge in the history of majors competition and held off two LIV traitors who, in the exhausting end, almost defied death at Augusta National.
At some point, a bizarre weekend reminded us that the universe is bigger than a golf tournament in Georgia and the accompanying geopolitics. Maybe it was when spectators fled — they aren’t patrons anymore when lives are at risk — as massive trees fell on the course. Maybe it was when storms, lake-like greens and cold weather prompted delays and unimaginable developments, such as Tiger Woods withdrawing from the tournament — if not the rest of his competitive career — because his once-mangled right foot no longer could tolerate the pain of a good walk tortured. Maybe it was when the field had to cram as many as 30 holes into a concluding morning, afternoon and evening, with a portly Spaniard fitted for a green jacket that could have been dry cleaned for mud spots and excessive water.
But while it was rewarding for traditionalists to see Rahm prevail as Koepka choked — how else to describe a two-stroke leader who went 22 holes without a birdie? — his rejection of LIV Golf’s riches and 54-hole circus format was only part of the story. Oh, we definitely are pleased to hail a man whose heart is in the right place.
“I've never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world,” said Rahm, who won his first Masters and second major title and moved to No. 1 in the world rankings. “I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now, the PGA Tour has that. Shotgun (start) and three days — to me, it’s not a golf tournament. No cut. It’s that’s simple. I want to play in a format that’s been going on for hundreds of years.”
And Rahm did just that in a 2023 Masters that seemed to last hundreds of years itself. Yet two unavoidable realities remained: Koepka dominated media attention for three days of news cycles, with stories of how the renegade tour enabled the four-time majors winner to overcome years of injuries, including a momentum stopper when he foolishly tried to play doctor and fix his dislocated kneecap after slipping at home. “I tried to put it back in and that's when I shattered my kneecap and during the process tore my MPFL,” he said of his medial patellofemoral ligament. “So the next time I tried to — you know, my leg was sideways and out. My foot was turned out, and when I snapped it back in, because the kneecap had already shattered, it went in pretty good. It went in a lot easier.”
He grinned upon telling the story. By Sunday night, Koepka was aghast, blowing a victory that would have repositioned him among the sport’s titans. The good news: He didn’t try to put his fist through the back window of a Masters courtesy car, as he unsuccessfully tried twice on a Mercedes-Benz last year after missing the cut. Still, unsightly collapse and all, he announced himself as a threat at the PGA Championship next month at Oak Hill, the U.S. Open in June at Los Angeles Country Club and the Open Championship in July at Royal Liverpool. Even as Koepka hinted he might have stayed on the PGA Tour if not for long-term concerns about injuries — “Honestly, yeah, probably, if I'm being completely honest,” he admitted — he quickly added, “But I'm happy with the decision I made.” Thus, he’ll continue to loom as a potential nightmare for the sport’s old guard. Chairman Fred Ridley and the Masters overlords easily could have banned Koepka and 17 other LIV defectors from the proceedings.
Instead, purists watched in horror as he almost stole a victory, which might have prompted fellow outcasts to gather in celebration on the 72nd hole, as rogue ringleader Greg Norman had suggested last week. The surges of Koepka and Mickelson, who rekindled memories of previous Masters conquests with a final-round 65, only nudged us back to the truth. Just because golfers escape to the dark side doesn’t mean they won’t reappear in the sacred light. And just because they play well in majors doesn’t mean we’ll have amnesia about their dirty deeds: how they’ve climbed into a grimy business bed with crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, among Saudi leaders responsible for the 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and a history of human rights horrors.
“Obviously it’s super disappointing, right? Didn’t play good enough to win,” Koepka said. “Hit some shots where I also didn’t feel like I got some good breaks. Didn’t feel like I did too much wrong, but that’s how golf goes sometimes. I feel good, and I expect to be there the other three (majors).” He fully intends to resume life as the alpha bro who pulverizes the golf ball and never hesitates to express his superiority.
Consider Mickelson. He arrived at Augusta in uncharacteristically sheepish condition, embarrassed by LIV-related backlash and his comments defending the “scary motherf——ers” who’ve showered him with a reported $200 million. At the Champions Dinner last Tuesday, he was conspicuous by his silence. His weight loss and haggard look prompted galleries to wonder if he’d become a freak show, in contrast to their decades-long love affair with Lefty. But there he was Friday, after a second-round 69, forecasting he was “close to going on a tear.” Sunday, he walked the talk as the fans roared again.
Yes, two years after winning the PGA Championship and becoming the oldest man to win a major, Mickelson remains a huge story after tying his best-ever round at the Masters and sharing second place with Koepka. At 52, he’s the oldest runner-up at Augusta after finishing 27th, 32nd and 41st in his three LIV events this year. So much for Shamed Phil.
“To come out today and play the way I did and hit the shots when I needed to, it's so much fun," Mickelson said. “It just reaffirms that I knew I was close. I’ve been hitting quality shots. This doesn't feel like a fluke.”
But as he flourished again, how could we ignore his all-black wardrobe, the same one he wears as a member of LIV’s Hy Flyers team? “Today is hopefully a stepping stone to really kick-start the rest of the year and continue some great play because I have a unique opportunity,” he said. “(Age) 52, no injuries, no physical problems, being able to swing a club the way I want to, to do things in the game that not many people have had a chance to do later in life.”
Behold Rahm, as we should, after he turned a four-shot deficit into a four-shot victory with a final-round 69. He and Scottie Scheffler, the defending champion who draped him with the green jacket, are the best players in the sport. Someday soon, maybe Rory McIlroy will join them instead of faltering in majors. Rahm is in the game for all the right reasons, He’s often up before dawn studying YouTube clips of other competitors, calling himself a “golf junkie.” Now he joins fellow countrymen Seve Ballesteros, Jose Maria Olazabal and Sergio Garcia as Masters champions.
He grew emotional when Olazabal, in his green jacket, embraced him by the scoring room. “He said he hopes it’s the first of many more,” Rahm said. His caddie, Adam Hayes, happened to be assigned a uniform with No. 49. Easter Sunday was 4/9 — April 9 — also the birthday of the late Ballesteros.
How nice if the narrative was left at that. But a hellish subplot won’t go away, sorry to say. “I mean, we’re still the same people,” Koepka said. “It’s something manufactured by the media that we can’t compete anymore, that we’re washed up. I know I can compete when healthy. I know Phil can.” He’s not wrong. For now, much as we’d like to hurl, it’s LIV and let LIV.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.