We know that a player doesn’t win four majors by accident. We know someone doesn’t reel off 13 top 10s in the span of 16 majors because they got a few lucky bounces. But we aren’t sure what exactly goes into winning a 48-person event called LIV Orlando. We don’t know whether Brooks Koepka is now as good as he was when he owned the majors around 2018, or if he’s still hampered by injuries. It’s impossible to make an educated guess about how he, or any of the LIV golfers, will fare at Augusta National.
Brooks Koepka “made history” this week by becoming the first player to win two events on the LIV Golf circuit. He won last year in LIV’s home country of Saudi Arabia and came out on top on the hallowed grounds of Orange County National’s Crooked Cat Course on Sunday. 2018 Masters champion Patrick Reed finished third.
In 2022, Koepka missed the cut at the Masters and the Open and finished 55th at the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship. Brooks’s game appears to be in a better place now than it was last spring. Now, Crooked Cat isn’t exactly Augusta National. “I don’t think you could have those in the same sentence,” Dustin Johnson said on Monday. “Other than I played there last week and I’m playing here this week.” Still, we can’t just ignore the fact that a four-time major winner won an event two days ago.
Many LIV players — DJ, Smith, and Bryson DeChambeau among them — were asked on Monday if they felt as prepared heading into the 2023 Masters as they had in years past. LIV has only held three events in 2023 and most of their players have played just four or five tournaments over the last five months. Every player put forth confidence, said they have put the work in, and have arrived at Augusta National ready to contend. But the truth is that they don’t know any more than we do. We haven’t seen top players have this long of an offseason in a very long time, and the seriousness of the competition they do play is somewhat up for debate. But does any of that matter?
Three-time Masters runner up and current LIV CEO Greg Norman is already having visions of sugarplums and LIV celebrations behind the 18th green dancing through his head. But just as Norman can only guess what it feels like to slip on a green jacket, we can’t know how LIV competition prepares its players for major championships. We’ll find out this week.
Cameron Smith during his Monday press conference at Augusta National. Courtesy of the Masters Tournament
Cam Smith did something unusual for a member of the LIV cohort on Monday: he was honest for a few minutes. Smith, as the sole LIV designee with a Masters press conference, wasn’t a heroic truth teller by any means, but he also wasn’t sticking to talking points.
The green jackets of Augusta National are loath to concede that the LIV vs. PGA Tour storyline is, well, a storyline at the 2023 Masters. But with 18 LIV players at the tournament, people are going to talk whether ANGC brass likes it or not. This is the first Masters held since LIV’s official launch in the summer of 2022. And it’s the first event since The Open to have both sides commingled in a significant way.
Smith was upfront about all of this: “I think it’s just important for LIV guys to be up there because … there’s a lot of chatter about ‘These guys don’t play real golf; these guys don’t play real golf courses.’ For sure, I’ll be the first one to say, the fields aren’t as strong.” This was a pretty point-blank admission from a LIV player that he’s thinking the same thing as much of the golf world: the LIV guys have a lot to gain, and a lot to lose, depending on how they perform this week.
Smith expressed a sense of relief about the hugs and handshakes that he and other LIV players received on the range. He did not want to consider the hypothetical of how things might go in front of the fans patrons. “I don’t know how the rest of the week is going to unfold. I haven’t really seen much of the crowd.” Fortunately for Cam, you’d see patrons sprinting and with their phones around here before you’d get any real booing or heckling.
Smith hinted that he was concerned about being “tapped on the shoulder” about his LIV uniform. The topic of Range Goat and Ripper paraphernalia was a hot one on the grounds, but if ANGC was going to forbid those LIV team logos, it would have made its ban clear long before this week. (Smith, in another moment of matter-of-factness did confirm that wearing the logos is a contractual obligation with his new league. But he brought two sets of clothes for the week just in case he was told to lose the logos.)
The highest-ranked LIV player did not sound enthused about the state of his game. (“I think I’m just not playing really good golf at the moment.”) That assessment of his own game brought a perhaps unintended shot at the venues and challenges he’s faced so far this year. “I’m just working on kind of getting a little bit more creative, hitting some different shots into the greens. I feel like I’ve been maybe a little bit…too one-dimensional for a lot of the time this year…this place for me is—I feel like I have to be creative. To get to some of those pins, you have to hit the big high cut. You have to hit the low sweeping draw into a back pin.” Despite one questioner’s amusing attempt to get Kevin Na to compare the Crooked Cat to Augusta National, there are almost no similarities between the two. ANGC is a place that allows Cam to shine and show off his creativity as he did at the Old Course in July. (To be clear, choosing one-dimensional host sites is not just a LIV problem. Many PGA Tour venues also don’t promote the most creative golf.)
While it was fun to entertain fantasies of adversarial confrontations, in reality, it was always obvious that the tournament would tamp the LIV-PGA Tour conflict down for a few days. Fred Couples, he of the recent “nutbag” tag for Phil Mickelson, ditched the caustic for a few compliments of Phil and Sergio Garcia’s games. DJ, Bryson, Kevin Na, Joaco Niemann, Mito, and others did get to speak with reporters, as well, and the bombast was limited. We’ve got a couple more days to go before the shots count but this was probably how things were always going to play out—the green jackets often don’t let outside drama overrun their tournament.
This piece originally appeared in The Fried Egg newsletter. Subscribe for free and receive golf news and insight every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
More Masters coverage from The Fried Egg team: