A LIV Golfer Sits Atop the Masters Leaderboard

Brooks Koepka, one of the most famous PGA Tour defectors, is a day-one co-leader at Augusta

Brooks Koepka reacts to his birdie on the 18th green during the first round of the 2023 Masters Tournament
"Somewhere Greg Norman was grinning"
Andrew Redington / Getty Images

Brooks Koepka appears to have finally overcome the serious leg injury, which occurred after a slip and fall in his home, that was at least partly to blame for his recent performance drop off. After birdying his final two holes yesterday on the first day of the Masters Tournament, he sat atop the leaderboard at Augusta National golf club with a score of seven under par, tied with Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm.

“I don’t think I’ve rediscovered anything,” Koepka said of his performance, according to Golf.com. “I just think I’m healthy, so I can move the way I want to.”

If Koepka’s going to win the whole thing, he may also have to overcome the pressure of representing an entire multi-billion dollar startup golf league, as one of the PGA Tour’s most (in)famous defectors, which he became last year upon committing to play at the Saudi Arabian-based LIV Golf league for a reported $100 million.

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Coming into the Masters, there was much discourse about the ability of LIV Golf players to compete with those who’ve remained on the PGA Tour. In the overseas league, there’s arguably less-talented opposition and, perhaps more relevantly, tournaments that only last 54 holes, as opposed to the 72 at a PGA event. But so far so good for Koepka — who after initially scorning PGA players who entertained a move to LIV, then went himself and reportedly expressed some “buyer’s remorse” over the decision — is making a statement in Georgia.

“Somewhere Greg Norman was grinning,” wrote Golf.com after the round was over. “Should Koepka or another LIV player win this week, the triumph would provide the upstart tour a credibility boost that money can’t buy, no matter how many dollars you have in your marketing budget.” If anyone can sidestep the hate thrown at LIV Golfers like him, it’s Koepka, who has said in the past that he uses criticism to fuel his success.

An even bigger name in the LIV family, Phil Mickelson, sits not far behind Koepka on the leaderboard. The six-time PGA Tour major champion was just six strokes back at the end of play yesterday. It was his first Masters action in two years after sitting out the tournament last year in the wake of his controversial move to LIV. A possible reason for his low score yesterday was the quiet he experienced on the course.

“On the occasion of his 30th career appearance in the Masters, Mickelson, once one of the single-most popular players to ever walk these grounds, was not followed by migrating packs of fans,” The Athletic reported. “If you wanted to see Lefty take a swing, you could simply stroll up to the rope line and watch him. Like picking out fruit in the grocery store.”

LIV Golfer Cameron Smith, who won the most recent Open Championship, finished one stroke ahead of Mickelson yesterday, while Dustin Johnson and former Masters champion Patrick Reed were tied with “Lefty” at the end of day-one play. Other LIV devotees struggled.  Bryson DeChambeau finished two over par, Louis Oosthuizen was two strokes worse, while Bubba Watson — who’s won two Masters — was five-over.

Though he didn’t quite break what’s become a ceasefire in the war of words between LIV Golfers and PGA Tour veterans during this holy-like Masters week, defector Sergio Garcia, who also shot a two-over 74, mixed it up with the media in a post-play press conference. “How normal did it feel coming back here and playing and concentrating on your game?” a reporter asked him, according to Golf.com

“Totally normal,” Garcia said, who was shaking his head in agitation. “Just you guys, you guys need to stop it. You guys are making a big deal out of this, and it’s you guys.”

The reporter said he was referencing a lack of “reps.” Garcia said he didn’t believe the reporter, but added that he’d played a typical number of tournaments, five, in the run up to the Masters this year. “I’ve had nothing but great things from every single player I talk to,” he said, referring to his time so far this week at Augusta. “So please stop it and talk about the Masters, you know.”

During the exchanges at the presser, “Notably, at no point did anyone say ‘LIV Golf,’” wrote Golf.com. It’s hard to believe that’ll continue to be the case if Brooks Koepka or another member of the LIV faithful takes home a green jacket.

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