AUGUSTA, Ga. — When Phil Mickelson was introduced on the first tee Thursday to begin his 30th appearance at the Masters Tournament, he was greeted by muted, faint applause. All the members of the renegade, Saudi-backed LIV Golf circuit in the field were being treated roughly the same during the opening round. Not shunned, just not welcomed.
It was a form of the silent treatment and as Mickelson walked down the first fairway Thursday, he was surrounded by a corridor of fans who hardly made a sound.
On the 18th green late Sunday afternoon in the final round of the 2023 Masters, Mickelson sank a twisting, downhill putt for birdie and twice pumped his left fist as he went to retrieve the ball. He was barking something to himself but it was inaudible because the thousands of fans enveloping the green were on their feet roaring their approval. Soon, the gallery was chanting: “Phil.”
Mickelson, who would finish tied for second at eight under par, waved to the crowd and smiled broadly, perhaps understanding better than anyone how much had changed in four days.
The palpable undercurrent to this year’s Masters, the sport’s most watched tournament and the initial men’s major of the year, was the first head-to-head match between the LIV rebels and the pros aligned with the entrenched PGA Tour at the venerable Augusta National Golf Club, which in every way epitomizes traditional golf. Mickelson has always been the headliner of the defectors, and he took the brunt of the heat for turning his back on the established golf world last year — so much so that he voluntarily withdrew from the 2022 Masters.
And now, after his best final round ever at the tournament, Mickelson, the three-time Masters champion, was being feted as if nothing had changed, with delirious cheers.
As his playing partner Sunday, Jordan Spieth, said afterward: “It felt very much like eight, nine or 10 years ago.”
Spieth also played well on Sunday, shooting 66 to Mickelson’s 65, and he had firsthand experience of what it was like to play with Mickelson years ago.
“I’ve played with him three or four times on Sunday here,” Spieth, who finished in a three-way tie for fourth at seven under par, said. “And I didn’t feel a whole lot different than those times.”
That is the most meaningful takeaway of this year’s Masters. A LIV player may not have won during the four days at Augusta National but they did not lose, as many expected. The reception Mickelson received proved that many golf fans are not drawing lines in the sand over this golf feud.
The LIV-affiliated golfers took three spots in the top 10, including Brooks Koepka matching Mickelson. Twelve of the 18 entrants made the cut. For a week at least, the embarrassingly low television ratings this year for LIV events in the United States seemed less significant. The conversation about LIV’s relevance was altered for a week, led by Mickelson. There will now be fewer assertions that LIV’s 54-hole events are merely exhibitions that do not prepare players for major competitions. Mickelson, 52, certainly showed plenty of stamina and panache for the final round on Sunday. Moreover, he predicted before the tournament that he was “about to go on a tear.”
Since Mickelson had not played especially well during his LIV tenure, not many in the golf world took that prediction seriously.
“It just reaffirms that I knew I was close and have been hitting quality shots,” Mickelson said after Sunday’s round. “This doesn’t feel like a fluke. I didn’t make loose swings at an inopportune time. I stayed very present and calm throughout, then executed and had a blast.”
Mickelson was smiling, even beaming. He understood the moment as he stood in front of the Augusta National clubhouse wearing the logos of the LIV team he captains — the HyFlyers — on his hat and a breast of his black pullover.
“Like this is so much fun,” he said. “Again, we’re all grateful that we’re able to play and compete here.”
He added a subtle, yet cheeky and revealing, comment — what else would you expect from a Phil Mickelson news conference? — that was made plainly accurate by his performance and those of others in LIV’s wing of professional golf.
“I think it’s tremendous for this tournament to have all the best players in the world here,” he said with another grin. “It means a lot.”
Mickelson is correct. For now at least, his performance and that of his brethren within LIV made a statement at the 2023 Masters. For one, the civil war on the fairways and greens that was envisioned didn’t materialize. The golfers from both tours got along. OK, maybe not every LIV representative was as welcome as the likable Cameron Smith, but some of those LIV guys weren’t well liked back when they were on the PGA Tour.
In the end, what the four days at the Masters proved is that the LIV circuit is not going anywhere. That is not necessarily a positive development for the expanded community of golf fans because it means tournament fields, except at the majors (for now or until some exemptions for LIV golfers expire) will be diluted and missing some big names — on both sides.
The cheers were real for Mickelson late Sunday, and understandable. But maybe in some subconscious way those ovations signaled what golf fans are missing — the whole gang back together again.