Jon Rahm Wins Masters in First PGA Tour-LIV Golf Showdown


Kurt Johnston, Senior Staff Writer

The Masters at Augusta National Golf Club has been golf’s marquee event since 1934. Augusta’s greenskeepers tinker with hole distances and tee boxes, but the course — with both its awe-inspiring splendor and incredibly problematic background — had always been constant. However, the 2023 Masters began an unprecedented era in the history of golf; the shock of last week’s event was the novel backdrop for the “tradition unlike any other”: sportswashing. 


The focus of this year’s Masters was not on the familiar storylines but on the first-ever clash between the PGA Tour and its new rival, LIV Golf. While PGA Tour golfer Jon Rahm ultimately won the tournament, his LIV opponents greatly exceeded expectations and secured three of the top five spots on the leaderboard. The Masters thus sets the stage for a highly anticipated and pivotal year for golf in 2023.


The tournament itself ultimately became a two-horse race, with Rahm squaring off against four-time major champion and LIV figurehead Brooks Koepka for the green jacket. After rain delays on Friday and Saturday, the two golfers played a marathon of 30 holes on Sunday to close the tournament. After Koepka’s 3 bogeys and Rahm’s 2 birdies early in the final round, the pair were even heading into Amen Corner (11th, 12th, and 13th holes at Augusta). It was Koepka who blinked first, with bogeys at the 12, 14, and 17 holes, all but wiping out his title chances. While birdies at 13, 15, and 16 meant Koepka battled to even par over his final nine holes, Rahm’s pair of birdies on 13 and 14 ultimately won him his second major and first green jacket. 


Behind Rahm (-12), Koepka tied for second with fellow LIV golfer and three-time Masters champion Phil Mickelson, who shot a career-low 65 on Sunday to finish 8 under par for the tournament. Two other former champions, Jordan Spieth (PGA Tour) and Patrick Reed (LIV) tied with Russell Henley (PGA Tour) for fourth place at 7 under par. Of the 18 LIV golfers who entered the tournament, 12 made the cut and three finished in the top 10. Meanwhile, several PGA stars (Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas, Max Homa) were sent home early after disappointing in their first 36 holes. 


The tournament was about much more than golf, however, as it represented the sport’s first modern encounter with sportswashing: the use of sports to enhance one’s public image or political standing. LIV Golf is funded by Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund, which is under the supervision of Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman. The LIV Tour is widely seen not as a way to make money but as a way for Saudi Arabia to distract the general public from human rights atrocities. 


Since the 2018 assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi regime has faced much harsher scrutiny from human rights groups and foreign governments. Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved in sports these past five years, hosting the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix in Formula One, assuming ownership of Newcastle United in the English Premier League, sponsoring the 2023 FIFA Women’s World Cup (ultimately reversed after protests), and funding LIV Golf. Each of these undertakings has been a part of an attempt to falsify an innocent political image, and it is certain that this pattern will continue, particularly as Saudi Arabia looks to host the 2030 FIFA Men’s World Cup.


Prior to the introduction of LIV, the PGA Tour held a monopoly over men’s golf. While select players golfed on the European Tour, the vast majority of the best men’s golfers in the world were under PGA branding. By offering the highest payouts seen in golf history, guaranteed money for all finishers, and fewer tournament commitments, LIV Golf attracted several of the game’s top players — notably Koepka, Mickelson, reigning Open Champion Cameron Smith, and two-time major champion Dustin Johnson. These payouts (each event paying $25 million) come despite a meager TV deal with the CW, general disinterest from golf fans, and a relative lack of talent compared to the PGA Tour.


In response, the PGA Tour banned all LIV golfers from participating in its tournaments, which is particularly noteworthy as LIV players are currently unable to earn world golf ranking points that help them qualify for major tournaments. Most of the game’s best players remain with the PGA Tour, but good performances by LIV players at the majors — the only times where the two tours will face each other — may turn PGA heads towards the ludicrous LIV money. Koepka, Mickelson, and Reed’s top five finishes at this year’s Masters prove that the LIV tour can compete against the longstanding PGA tour. 


Three more majors remain on golf’s 2023 calendar, with the next PGA-LIV clash set in May for the PGA Championship at Oak Hill Country Club. The major season finishes with the U.S. Open at Los Angeles Country Club and the Open Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. It is only a matter of time before a LIV player wins a major; when this happens, fans will have witnessed a dramatic milestone in golf’s sportswashing era.


Image Courtesy of Chris Urbanowicz of Flickr