By DOUG FERGUSON
AP Golf Writer
AUGUSTA, Ga. — The Masters had eight major champions finish among the top 10 and ties, and where they made a living became a mere footnote when Jon Rahm slipped into the green jacket.
For the most part, it was a Masters just like any other.
That includes the final hour. As much drama as Augusta National can create, this was the fourth straight year the winner had at least a four-shot lead with four holes to play.
This wasn’t the first major with both PGA Tour and LIV Golf players. What caused so much anticipation was the Masters being the first major since the two tours began waging an expensive battle in federal court.
And so the Masters became the first look at how the two sides would get along (fine), and how LIV Golf players would fare over 72 holes against a full field (even better).
Brooks Koepka led from the second hole Friday morning until the sixth hole Sunday afternoon until he suffered through an inglorious 22-hole stretch without a birdie, and Rahm shot 69 to win by four.
Koepka tied for second with Phil Mickelson, who amazed yet again with birdies on his last two holes for a 65. It matched his lowest score at Augusta National, the other occasion in 1996 when Tiger Woods was still an amateur. Mickelson is ageless.
Patrick Reed tied for fourth, one of only two players at par or better all four rounds.
“We’re still the same people,” Koepka said. “I think that’s just manufactured by the media that we can’t compete anymore, that we are washed up.”
And now attentions shift to the PGA Championship five weeks away. The question is not how they will perform but who even gets a chance.
The PGA Championship has long billed itself as having the strongest field in golf, which it bases on the world ranking. LIV Golf doesn’t get world ranking points at the moment — and the Official World Golf Ranking board doesn’t seem to be in a big rush — and players will keep sliding into oblivion.
Koepka was No. 118 in the world going into the Masters. No one bought that. His runner-up finish moved him to No. 39. No one is buying that, either.
Nine players from LIV Golf currently are eligible for Oak Hill in Rochester, New York, through PGA Championship criteria. Eight others currently are in the top 100 — at least for now. Among those on the bubble are Cameron Tringale (90) and Jason Kokrak (93), who are likely to fall out by the time the PGA of America offers invitations. Hardly anyone will notice their absence.
Kerry Haigh, the chief championships officer, said the PGA of America would look at other tours, money lists and rankings, just like always. And he said “absolutely” the organization would consider players from LIV Golf.
The PGA Championship is the final week before the U.S. Open exempts the top 60 players and the British Open exempts the top 50 from having to qualify. Reed did himself a world of good at Augusta. He moved up to No. 45 from No. 70.
The Masters, meanwhile, already released its tournament qualifications for next year and it includes the top 50 from the world ranking (at the end of the year and a week before the Masters). Augusta National has a seat at the OWGR table.
Of the 18 players from LIV Golf at the Masters this year, as many as eight are unlikely to be return next year, maybe ever.
“I took my parents here because it could be my last one,” said Thomas Pieters of Belgium, who decided to join LIV Golf in February. “That’s just being realistic. I don’t know. Time will tell. We’ll see.”
Pieters later told The Daily Telegraph: “Hopefully this week was an eye-opener for everybody that this is good for golf. There were three LIV players in the top four here, but there are only three LIV players in the world’s top 35. How does that work? Look, you want to play against the best in the world but when the system’s rigged or you don’t get the best, the product’s not going to be as good.”
Except for the world ranking, the only path back to Augusta National for LIV players is to finish among the top four in the other three majors.
For the other three majors, they would have to finish in the top 10 (top 15 for the PGA Championship) to get back the next year (except for qualifying for the two Opens).
Reed’s five-year exemption to the other majors ran out this year. Koepka’s exemption from the 2019 PGA Championship runs through next year.
It’s doubtful the Masters would ever consider invitations for winning a LIV Golf event. It didn’t even include LIV results in the player performance guide, instead sticking only to results from OWGR tournaments.
If world ranking points ever get awarded to LIV events, its 48 players will have fallen far enough that none of the field will be particularly strong and advancement won’t be easy.
“Then they’ll have to catch up by playing well,” Jordan Spieth said.
They knew what they were signing up for by joining LIV, and they knew how much money they were getting. It’s the cost of doing business.
“Every major wants to have the best field possible, so they come up with a criteria that they feel will yield that,” Spieth said. “If that’s not the case, then they’ll change it to yield that.”
Maybe. But perhaps the way forward is for LIV golfers is to play their best when it matters. It worked for Koepka.
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