AUGUSTA — Seventy-two holes is a ton of golf. It feels like even more when there are multiple stoppages in play and a 29-hole marathon Sunday. In the end, the best player on the planet won the biggest golf tournament on the planet. There is so, so much to discuss. Here are 18 parting thoughts from the grounds of Augusta National.
1. The Internet is turning us into goldfish, so it’s no surprise we forget things as quickly as they do. But let’s rewind back just two months, when Jon Rahm reigned on top of the golfing world. He’d just won the Genesis Invitational at Riviera. It was his third win of the season, including two of the first three designated events, and he’d finished eighth or better in 10 consecutive starts. He’d gotten back to world No. 1, where he belonged, and sat primed to rip off a historic season.
Then he had one bad event at Bay Hill, got sick at the Players, played meh at a kooky golf course in match play and successfully threw off the scent. Big time. Rahm entered the week as the third favorite based on a gnarly case of recency bias. But he reminded us that, as Eddie Pepperell put it, he’s the one. If you were to conduct a poll of world golfers and ask them a simple question—who’s career would you take over the next 5 years—Rahm would be the runaway winner. His well-rounded game has the deep respect of his peers, and he’s long been tapped for all-time greatness. When he turned pro after being world No. 1 at Arizona State, the consensus was he was already a top-10 player in the world. There have been some detours along the way, but Sunday he resumed his march toward history with a second major championship that brings him halfway to the career Grand Slam. At 28, he’s a two-time major winner at the height of his powers, and he now has four wins this year including the Masters. Odds are he’ll be the favorite at each of the remaining three for the year. Unless, that is, we fall victim to goldfish brain yet again. Let’s try to avoid that by remembering: Jon Rahm is the one.
2. In hindsight, the how will the LIV guys be able to stay elite? narrative looks pretty silly. Hand up, guys like myself contributed to it. It turns out that the world’s best professional golfers remain the world’s best professional golfers even when they’re playing on a different tour. Sure, they’re playing different courses on a weekly basis, and they’re not playing as many cutthroat events as they did before—but it’s not so black and white. It’s not like they went from playing every single week to not playing at all. And, granted, the quality of LIV courses doesn’t compare to the Rivieras and TPC Sawgrasses of the world, but they’re also not your local pitch-and-putt munis.
These guys do the vast majority of their practice and training off the golf course, and those processes haven’t changed. And while I do think the vibe at LIV events themselves is far more happy-go-lucky than it is at PGA Tour events—guaranteed money and no cut have that effect—that doesn’t mean the top players can’t lock in at the majors. Think of the NBA: guys coast through the regular season all the time only to turn it up for the playoffs. These guys know what the standard of championship golf looks and feels like, and if they say they’re maintaining it, who are we to doubt them? As Dustin Johnson put it: “I played a long time with all these guys. So if I'm playing how I should, yeah, I can—I'll be right there at the end.”
Twelve of the 18 LIV players made the cut this week. They had the 36-hole leader and the 54-hole leader in Brooks Koepka. They had the runner-up in Phil Mickelson. They had three guys in the top 6. Turns out there hasn’t been a Space Jam-like vanishing of ability.
3. Phil Mickelson is back, baby. Augusta National has a flair for the dramatic and the geriatric; we’ve seen guys contend deep into their 50s before, and Lefty couldn’t have picked a better venue to start shifting the public narrative. As a three-time champion he obviously feels comfortable around here, and he felt cheery enough to start needling the media early in the week. He joked about needing advice from his Hy Flyers teammate, Brendan Steele, because he listens to him more than his own coach. He went into great detail about the intricacies of the golf course, reminding us that he’d be an all-time color commentator.
And, most importantly, he played great golf. A final-round 65 at the Masters, capped by birdies at 17 and 18, means he’s now won a major championship at 51 years old and finished second in one at 52. The best medicine for a public image, as Tiger Woods will tell you, is to play good golf. Mickelson’s at his best when he’s flashing smiles and cheesy thumbs-ups. It was refreshing to see him in such good spirits this week, and that fist-pump on 18 looked rather cathartic.
“I had so much fun today,” he said. “To come out today and play the way I did and hit the shots when I needed, it's so much fun. I'm grateful to be a part of this tournament and to be here competing and then to play well, it means a lot.”
4. Jordan Spieth called his shot. Not in a good way. In his press conference on Monday, he noted how the issue at Augusta (in recent years) hasn’t been finding the birdies on Sunday. It’s been leaving himself with far too much work to do.
“I had chances in 2014 and 2016 down the stretch, and other than that, it's just been 2018 that I was nine back. 2021, I was pretty far back. I really haven't had a lot of opportunities on the back nine with how many top -- like I've backdoored some of those top finishes, and I'd love to get in the mix because I feel like right now, I feel better about my game than I've felt since probably 2017.”
Of course, all shots count the same, no matter if it’s a 350-yard drive on Thursday or a two-inch tap in on Sunday. Still, it’s hard not to bang your head against a wall over a maddening decision he made on Thursday. He was three-under for his round after a really nice bogey save on 11, where he found the water with his second. A solid par on 12 preeceded a big ol’ push into the right trees on 13. He had 226 to the hole off the pinestraw. And he went for it. It never cleared the water, and he needed four more after the drop for a painful double-bogey 7. It was an awful decision at the time, and it remains an awful decision.
I think back to a conversation I had with Paul Tesori, Webb Simpson’s longtime caddie who’s now working for Cameron Young, on Thursday.
“You really only have to step in two or three times a round,” Tesori said of his craft. “They try to make two or three mental mistakes a round, and you gotta step in there when they do.”
This was one of those times. Spieth's caddie Michael Greller said his piece, but Spieth continues to overrule him in key spots and it's costing him big time. He knows it, too.
“When you're that far back, you have to have everything go right,” Spieth said Sunday. “It was close, but I should have done a lot better in those first three rounds. I made a tremendous amount of mental mistakes. To be this close now, it's nice, but it also almost frustrates me more because I really -- I made some mistakes I don't normally make out here, and it was more decision errors than anything else.”
5. Rumors of Tiger Woods’ demise are, once again, being greatly exaggerated. Look, I get it. That’s the nature of the pageviews business. Headlines sell, and writing Tiger Woods off will definitely get clicks. It is, however, funny to see writers suggest that Tiger hang it up because that would somehow make him a happier person.
It couldn’t be further from the truth. Competitive golf has been Tiger Woods’ life since he was 3-years-old. You argue it’s been to a fault. Most of the struggles in his life—the DUI, the accident in California—have come when he’s not playing professional golf. Tournaments are his refuge. They’re where he feels most alive. He loves nothing more than being one of the boys, grinding out four-footers, talking about how a 74 should’ve been a 68. For him, a painful day inside the ropes beats any day at home.
Still, he’s not masochistic, and withdrawing Sunday morning made perfect sense. You couldn’t cook up a worse set of conditions for him than this week: stop-and-start, rain, cold. He almost certainly hasn’t played 29 holes in one day since the accident, which is what he would’ve had to do, and especially not in 48-degree weather.
And while Woods has maintained throughout the years that he won’t turn up to a tournament if he doesn’t think he can win, he sang a different tune this week. Tuesday marked the first time he’s answered the can you win question with anything but an emotionless “yes.” He hee’d and haww’d about having all the shots but not being sure he could hold up physically. It does indeed seem there’s been an internal softening of that hard-line position that it’s win or bust. He’s used the word grateful umpteen times since he’s been back. He’s more than allowed to back off that old posture, and it seems he has. Maybe he missed playing tournaments more than he thought he would. There might’ve been a time when Nicklaus said he wouldn’t keep playing unless he thought he can win. It’s something you say when you’re young, when you feel invincible, when you can’t fathom the end. Things change as you age.
So let’s hold off making any wide-ranging declarations about Woods or his future prospects based off a hellish weather week.
6. Sam Bennett has some kind of moxie. It shows itself in every part of his game. There’s the violent club twirls. The saucy (and distinctly modern) chipping method of opening the face way up, using the bounce, never taking a divot and nipping high-launch spinners. It’s most evident, though, at the podium. After opening with back-to-back 68s and earning his way into the final threesome for the third round, the green jackets brought Bennett in to the interview room for a formal press conference. You might expect an amatuer to walk on eggshells in there—to talk about how much of a dream it is to be playing, just happy to be there, all that jazz.
No sir. Bennett said screw low amateur—he had a golf tournament he planned to win. Then he subtly daggered Augusta National three times.
First, about the difficulty of the course, with a wry smile and a cocky drawl: “The championship golf courses, I mean, Ridgewood, it's harder than this place, I'll tell you that."
Then, about his agent not being let on the grounds” “They wouldn't let my agent get credentialed this week. I don't think they're caught up with that NIL stuff, I don't know, but I thought that was weird.”
Lastly, about the speed of the greens: “It's already pretty slow and soft out there. I mean, Scottie was saying the greens were significantly slower than they have been in the past. Floridian, I played a college tournament down in Florida last week and they were significantly faster than they are here. It's a soft golf course.”
You gotta respect the cojones.
7. What a brutally difficult missed cut for Rory McIlroy to swallow. It’s never great missing the cut in the biggest golf tournament in the world as the No. 2 ranked player, but the context makes it even worse. Rory seemed to exorcize his Augusta demons with his final-round 64 last year. It wasn’t just the number he shot; it was the carefree and aggressive way he played the back-nine. He was downright childlike after he holed-out from the bunker to cap the round with one final birdie, and for the first time in a long time he left Augusta feeling good about himself.
I felt last year that I maybe shed some of that scar tissue and felt like I sort of made breakthroughs. Yeah, I'm feeling as sort of relaxed as I ever have coming in here just in terms of I feel like my game is in a pretty good place. I know the place just about as well as anyone,” he said in his pre-tournament press conference. That’s certainly true—this marked McIlroy’s 15th Masters appearance, and he played more golf at Augusta in the run-up to this one than probably anyone else in the field. He played 81 holes here in recent weeks, and word spread that he’d been putting lights out and pouring in birdie after birdie. That, plus a solo third in his last start before this week, which included beating world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, had plenty believing McIlroy would finally complete the Career Grand Slam.
“I've got all the ingredients to make the pie. It's just putting all those ingredients in and setting the oven to the right temperature and letting it all sort of come to fruition. But I know that I've got everything there. It's just a matter of putting it all together.”
He even got the right side of the draw! Guys who didn’t have to come back to finish in horrific weather Saturday morning had a roughly two-shot advantage. The course was playing as straightforward as Augusta ever can on Saturday morning and he could only manage an even-par 72. Then, a disastrous five-over 77 that looked just as ugly as the score suggests. He had zero control of his ball and, halfway through the back nine, seemed resigned to his fate. His last three results at the Masters: CUT, solo 2nd, CUT. I’m not a huge fan of journalists diagnosing the problem with a world-class golfer’s mindset from the media center, so let’s just leave it at this: there shall be no more talk of a Big 3. It is Rahm and Scheffler, and there is a significant gap to No. 3 on the PGA Tour. McIlroy has now missed the cut in the two biggest events of the year—the Players and the Masters—and, fair not, a player of his caliber is judged by his performances in the biggest events.
8. Speaking of disappointments…what on earth is up with Max Homa at the majors? He was a super trendy pick coming into this week. Made sense, too—he’s been among the very best players on the PGA Tour for the first four months of this year. He won at Torrey Pines, a course that’s hosted majors before. He finished solo second (to Rahm) at Riviera, a course that has hosted majors in the past and will host more in the future. He finished T6 at the Players Championship, a major-like test. He teed it up this week as the No. 5 player in the world and, after a one-under 71, was in solid position to put up the board on the weekend.
He went the other way, coming home in 73-72-78(!) for a T43 finish, and he’s now played 14 major championships without a single top 10 finish. The good news: the next one’s back home in Los Angeles at LACC, where he holds the course record (61) from when he won the Pac-12 individual title there in 2013. Let’s hope the SoCal vibes are what he needs, because he’s way too solid a player for this major championship slump to continue.
9. For how adored and revered he is in golf circles, Fred Couples “only” won one major championship. He’s left his mark more with his cool-as-hell vibe and syrupy swing than his on-course resume—which, of course, is nothing to scoff at. Fifteen PGA Tour wins, including the Masters and two Players Championships. Still, it feels like he deserved more.
How great, then, for him to become the oldest player to make the cut in the history of the Masters Tournament. That’s an epic record to hold, and Freddie’s now even more part of the fabric of his club and this tournament than he was before, with his 11 top-10 finishes and 20 top 25s. As far as potential future Honorary Starters go, Couples would seem to top the list, even if he “only” won one green jacket. That ceremony’s primary goal is to engender warm feelings at the start of the tournament, and Freddie surely elicits those more than Tom Watson or Gary Player, the latter of whom called the Masters the fourth-best major championship last week. Let’s get Freddie in there when he’s done playing. Which, judging by this week’s performance, won’t be for a little while.
10. Augusta National announced a new philanthropic initiative this year aimed at boosting public golf in the local community. The club will work with the Augusta Technical College to provide “formal educational programs that produce the next generation of golf’s workforce.” They’ll also help the First Tee of Augusta expand its reach and assist (which means help pay for) in the master planning and renovation of Augusta Municipal Golf Course, affectionately known locally as “The Patch.” This comes a few years after ANGC donated $10 million alongside IBM, AT&T and Bank of America to fund a Hub for community innovation, which includes a new headquarters for the Boys and Girls Club of Augusta.
Any Augusta National announcement of this type is immediately met with snarky cynicism—murmurs that their goodwill is skin-deep, that they do it to pat themselves on the back and divert attention from their exclusionary past.
What a lame way to view the world. First of all, we have no idea what truly motivates the club, and there’s no reason to believe it isn’t genuine benevolence. And even if it isn’t, who cares what the motivation is if the results are programs that make a massively positive impact? And the initiatives Ridley announces on Masters Wednesdays aren’t the only work the club does.
“They’ve been giving a pile of money to the Central Savannah River Area community foundation, and it’s a grant process,” explains John Boyette of the Aiken Standard, who’s been reporting on this area for decades. “Local charities apply for a grant and they give them money through that. It’s a lot of money that they give out, and for years they didn’t publicize that…they do that kind of stuff and they don’t go out of their way to seek attention if they do something. They do a lot of stuff behind the scenes. During the racial injustice movement from a couple years ago, I think they felt the need to go out and do something. They honored Lee Elder. They did the HUB, the First Tee, the Patch.”
The Patch partnership is particularly intriguing, for it could serve as a model for highly exclusive clubs around the country with extraordinarily wealthy memberships. How cool would it be for others to take the lead and bolster public golf in their community? As for Augusta’s past…you cannot hold a son responsible for the sins of his father.
11. Perhaps you’ve heard, but there are no phones allowed on the grounds at Augusta National. My main takeaway from this, my fifth phone-less Masters: it’s amazing how many questions must have gone unanswered before we had supercomputers in our pockets. I was walking down the 10th hole with a fellow media type when we both realized we coudln’t remember where Scott Stallings went to college. Reflexively, I reached in my pocket. Then we just looked at each other like…uhhh, guess we just, like, don’t know. You also realize how useless 95% of what we do on our phones is. The world hadn’t changed when I got back to the media center an hour later. (The answer, by the way, is Tennessee Tech).
12. Gone are the days of amateurs showing up to the Masters in their college uniforms or an Augusta National hat. Sam Bennett is perhaps the best example of this. The reigning U.S. Amtaeur champion is taking full advantage of the NIL era—he even complained that Augusta National wouldn’t credential his agent.
Bennett turned up to the Masters logo’d the hell up: Johnnie O logo on his left breast, Veritex Bank on his right, SAM Nutrition on his left sleeve, CAP Fleet on his right, Suncast on the front of his hat and Ping on both sides of it. It’s why he wasn’t too bothered about foregoing whatever check he’d receive had he been a pro.
“I don't know,” he said with a smile, gesturing at all his logos. “NIL has been pretty good this year.”
Indeed it has. Watching him up there, I couldn’t help but wonder just what amateurism means these days. All the top college players are making money—sure, not from tournament checks, but they’re not making money for their tennis abilities. They’re making money because they’re good at golf. I don’t have a problem with this at all, it’s just interesting how the line between professional golfer and amateur golfer is so thin that it’s barely visible. It’s almost like being an “amateur,” once the mark of an income-less student or an insurance salesman, is now…kind of a bit?
13. The Masters app is fucking incredible. We’ve been saying it all week. It was already the best app in golf by a million miles and it somehow got even better last year. Turns out when you have 300 of the country’s most successful people in charge, they make some pretty good decisions as to who to outsource projects to.
BUT—and it’s a sizable but—you simply cannot have the final group playing the weekend at the Masters and fans at home can’t watch. Why the powers that be didn’t designate the Koepka, Rahm and Bennett group as a featured group on Saturday is beyond anyone with a brain. Yes, the club didn’t know the final group would be teeing off an hour-plus earlier than expected on Saturday to squeeze in as much play as possible before the storm rolled in. But they knew it once play was suspended on Friday, and I refuse to believe there wasn’t a solution that involved giving people the chance to watch the final threesome in its entirety. The only thing I can think of is there’s a clause in the CBS contract that the final group can’t be a featured group, because they want to direct people to the broadcast. If that is indeed the case, surely the club could’ve improvised and shown the final group as a featured group before shutting it off when CBS went live at 3 pm.
It was such a flagrant error that it almost overshadows all the technological goodwill the tournament built up. It’s like a football defense that shuts down its opponent all game then, while trying to protect a 10-6 lead, lets a receiver get past the safety on 4th and 15 for a touchdown to lose the game. Great effort for the vast majority, but a critical mistake.
14. Roll your eyes all you want, but there absolutely was a detente this week in the PGA Tour vs. LIV Golf war. Communicating through headlines or tweets or transcripts is much, much different than looking someone in the eye. This week brought all the boys back together. There wasn’t a hint of tension. In fact, it felt more like a reunion.
“The more face time you get with some people,” Rory McIlroy, Mr. PGA Tour, said Tuesday, “the more comfortable you become in some way.” There seems to be more momentum than ever, at least among the players, to all happily coexist and to potentially find a pathway forward. That’s what Augusta National wants, too. Judging from chairman Fred Ridley’s comments, they view all this as a nonsensical distraction that doesn’t do the game any good.
They also seem to despise Greg Norman. Most everyone in this ecosystem, outside of his LIV employees, feel that way. He was a prickly character to begin with; now he fancies himself a game-changing maverick because he’s got some very wealthy backers, and it’s rubbed a ton of people the wrong way. Rory McIlroy has called for his ouster. So has Tiger Woods. And while Ridley wouldn’t go so far as saying it outright, his response to a question about inviting Norman conveyed plenty.
“We did not extend an invitation to Mr. Norman. The primary issue and the driver there is that I want the focus this week to be on the Masters competition, on the great players that are participating, the greatest players in the world, which, by our decision in December, we ensured that we were going to honor and be consistent with our invitation criteria. I would also add that, in the last ten years, Greg Norman has only been here twice, and I believe one of those was as a commentator for Sirius Radio. It really was to keep the focus on the competition.”
That’s Augusta Nationalese for: He loves attention, we don’t want to give him any, and we didn’t like him even before all this.
It puts LIV in a tough spot, because Norman is the avatar for the whole operation, and his brash style fits with the brand they’ve built. But if they truly want a resolution like they say they do, it’s clearer than ever that his presence is a roadblock toward that end.
15. For all the adoration the Masters gets, is it possible that the golf course itself is a touch underappreciated? It has grown and evolved into the perfect test of championship golf; a course that gives everyone in the field a shot if they’re in control of their ball. There is no one way to play the course, which is how you get a result like 63-year-old Fred Couples making the cut and world No. 2 and 33-year-old Rory McIlroy missing it.
“Something about this golf course,” says Jon Rahm. “I think it's because it allows you to play however you want to play it that always gives every player a chance, right. There's multiple options off the tee, multiple options into greens. There's not one style of golf. You can pretty much do it however is most comfortable for you. And if you play good golf, you might be able to get it done.”
There’s also been some talk that Augusta, with all its lengthened holes, plays more into bombers’ hands than it used to. But Kevin Kisner, decidedly not a bomber, isn’t buying it—he still believes a player like Zach Johnson, or like himself, can win here. That’s thanks to subtle changes; not the in-your-face ones like a new tee on 5 or 13, but little tweaks that the club makes yearly.
“The bombers still have an extreme advantage, just because the less yardage they have in to these small areas that we’re hitting into,” says Kevin Kisner. “But man, they keep adding these small pines everywhere off the tee where you think it’s wide open then you get there and you’re blocked out, or you have limb trouble, or what not. It doesn’t seem as open as it used to off the tee.”
16. On a personal note, it was hugely gratifying to watch Sahith Theegala play his ass off this week and finish as the top rookie at the Masters. I went down to Houston with Brendan Jones and Alex Busch last week to film an upcoming series with him and loved what I saw—he’s creative as hell around the greens, which Augusta demands, and he admitted full well that he’d been nervous for this week since the moment match play finished. He couldn’t have been more gracious with his time or more friendly, and it was hard not to smile when he chipped in for birdie at 16. A fantastic first Masters for a fantastic kid.
17. The PGA of America confirmed to me that Koepka will receive his full allotment of Ryder Cup points for this finish. If he plays well in the rest of the three majors, he could well make the team as one of the six auto-qualifiers. It's more likely that he'd need a captain's pick from Zach Johnson. As things stand, LIV Golfers aren’t banned from the Ryder Cup—it’s just much, much harder for them to qualify on points, because the points race doesn’t count LIV events. It’s a pretty similar situation to major qualification—they’re not banned, it’s just much harder for them to get in through the world rankings. (The OWGR, by the way, is quickly losing credibility. It just is, but we won’t get into that right now). That’s a good thing, because as this week’s Masters showed, the biggest events in golf exist above the petty tour wars. The Ryder Cup is one of those big events, and we should want the 12 best players there from each side no matter where they play their non-major golf. If that’s the criteria—the 12 best—then it’s hard to imagine Koepka shouldn’t be in Rome. Let us hope that week, like this one, transcends all the bullshit.
18. You’d all be stunned at how many journalists fall asleep in this media center. That is all.
Fired up to do this all again with you all next month at the PGA Championship in Rochester.