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Koepka, Mickelson play at The Masters, a 'win' for Saudi-funded LIV Golf

The breakaway league has been criticized for its relative lack of talent versus the PGA Tour, but LIV golfers performed well at The Masters to the chagrin of their detractors.
AUGUSTA, GEORGIA - APRIL 09: Phil Mickelson of the United States reacts to his birdie putt on the 18th green during the final round of the 2023 Masters Tournament at Augusta National Golf Club on April 9, 2023 in Augusta, Georgia.

Spain’s Jon Rahm won The Masters golf championship on Sunday, beating out Americans Brooks Koepka and Phil Mickelson — both of whom play in the Saudi-funded LIV Golf league — by four strokes. Koepka was leading earlier in the tournament, but fell apart on the final day.

In fact, the performance of Koepka, Mickelson and other LIV golfers was a major storyline at the tournament. Several fans and commentators consider this year’s Masters to have been a win for the breakaway league. 



LIV Golf continues to face several challenges as it seeks to become a force in global golf, as part of Saudi Arabia's sports strategy. But the results of The Masters showed the league has some of the sport’s top talent. 

Background: LIV Golf concluded its first season last year and began its second this past February. The league is backed by the Saudi Public Investment Fund and is a rival to the PGA Tour — the dominant tour in the United States. 

The Masters is one of golf’s four “major” championships and is annually held in the southeastern US state of Georgia. Koepka and Mickelson tied for second at The Masters, while LIV Golf’s Patrick Reed tied for fourth. This means three members of the LIV circuit finished in the top 10 at the first major of the year.

LIV Golf has been controversial from the start due to Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, the changes it is introducing to the game and the much higher compensation it offers to golfers due to Saudi oil wealth. Harsh criticism from top PGA golfers like Rory McIlroy and golf analysts in the past year has only added fuel to the fire. 

Why it matters: The strong performances by LIV athletes at The Masters bode well for the league. One criticism of LIV Golf has been its relative lack of talent versus the PGA Tour. 

“There’s no question that for now, the PGA Tour will maintain its edge in top-tier talent,” Dylan Dethier wrote in Golf Magazine in January. 

Koepka addressed the claims that LIV Golfers cannot contend for championships following his performance at The Masters. 

"I think that's just manufactured by the media that we can't compete anymore; that we are washed up,” said Koepka, ESPN reported on Monday. 

Indeed, many outlets have called the tournament a positive for LIV. The New York Post labeled LIV Golf “big winners” at The Masters, while Yahoo! Sports wrote that LIV “won big.”

LIV could benefit from the public relations boost it is receiving following The Masters. The league has been experiencing challenges in its second year. In February, the New York-based Front Office Sports wrote that LIV is no longer an existential threat to the PGA Tour. The outlet called LIV’s TV deal with CW — a relatively small US network — “disappointing,” and pointed out that fewer top golfers made the jump to LIV this year compared to last. 

LIV is also embroiled in a legal battle with the PGA over the latter’s suspension of LIV golfers. 

Despite Koepka and Mickelson's strong performances at The Masters, the end results show that more of the top golfers are still with the PGA. 

LIV's success is important for Saudi Arabia's overall sports strategy. The kingdom is using its oil wealth to become a major player in not only golf but soccer and Formula 1 as well, Sam Wendel wrote for Al-Monitor PRO in December. 

Know more: The rivalry between LIV Golf and the PGA Tour is still strong. Many golf fans criticized ESPN and CBS’s coverage of The Masters. Koepka was featured in the coverage due to his being in contention to win throughout the tournament. However, fans accused the networks of barely focusing on Mickelson, Reed and other LIV golfers.



Mickelson’s strong performance at The Masters presumably should have been a big storyline due to his age and stature as one of the best in the sport. 

Critics of LIV Golf were relieved that Rahm won instead of Koepka or Mickelson. Columnist Christine Brennan went so far as to say Rahm “rescued” Augusta National, which hosts The Masters, from having to crown a LIV athlete as champion. 

“Thank you, Jon Rahm, for Masters win and keeping the green jacket away from a LIV golfer,” she wrote in USA Today on Sunday. “Masters winner Jon Rahm rescued Augusta National from the ignominy of having to put a green jacket on LIV Golf's Brooks Koepka or Phil Mickelson.”

What’s next: The next golf major, the PGA Championship, will begin on May 18. The next LIV tournament will take place on April 21 in Australia. Three LIV tournaments are being held at golf courses owned by former US President Donald Trump this year. Trump's relationship with LIV has been heavily criticized by 9/11 groups. 

LIV golfers will notably be able to qualify for all of the remaining major golf tournaments in 2023, per the eligibility requirements of the US Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship.

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