AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) — As Phil Mickelson walked to the first tee — his LIV loyalties prominent on his cap, shirt and bag — he fist-bumped with a young girl hanging along the ropes before acknowledging the familiar cheers that have followed him throughout his career.
“Go get ’em, Lefty!”
But after Mickelson launched his first shot of the Masters around lunchtime Thursday, a noticeably smaller group of patrons than previous years headed off with him.
Maybe it was because of his lowly place in the world rankings — No. 425, sandwiched between India’s Yuvraj Singh Sandhu and Argentina’s Tano Goya.
Not much to see here.
Just another aging golfer whose best days are behind him.
But this is Phil Mickelson, the People’s Champion, long one of the game’s most popular players and perhaps its biggest draw outside of Tiger Woods.
Given the typically enormous crowd that Woods attracted to his group for the opening round — not bad for a part-time player with a battered body — it’s probably fair to assume some of Lefty’s longtime fans have moved on since he aligned with LIV Golf, the Saudi-backed rebellion against the established PGA Tour.
Mickelson’s decision — even after acknowledging the human rights abuses of the Saudi regime — led to such negative fallout that he skipped the Masters a year ago.
But Mickelson has been followed to LIV by a number of well-known golfers, including major champions Cameron Smith, Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson.
With LIV now in its second season, Mickelson felt comfortable enough to return to Augusta, where the three-time winner has a lifetime exemption.
“It’s nice to be back out here,” he said.
Koepka fired the biggest salvo for the new tour with a 7-under 65, which left him tied for the lead with Norway’s Viktor Hovland and Spain’s Jon Rahm.
Imagine the fallout if Koepka takes a green jacket back to his new tour.
“There’s a lot going on,” said Koepka, who is regaining his form after recovering from surgery to repair a shattered kneecap. “I’m just trying to play the best I can play every time I tee it up.”
There were no signs of hostility toward 18 LIV players who qualified for the Masters, either from their competitors or the patrons, who know any unsavory displays would likely lead to a permanent loss of those treasured badges.
Sergio Garcia, the 2017 Masters champion and another LIV defector, blamed the media for trying to stir things up between the rival tours.
After opening with a 74, Garcia shot back at reporters who asked if this felt like a normal Masters with all the bad blood away from the course.
“Totally normal,” Garcia said. “You guys need to stop it. You guys are making a big deal out of this, and it’s you guys.”
When a reporter took issue with the Spaniard, he didn’t back off.
“I’ve had nothing but great things from every single player I talk to,” Garcia said. “So please stop it and talk about the Masters.”
The LIV contingent dropped to 17 when Kevin Na withdrew after playing only nine holes. But everyone else from the upstart tour made it through the round, with four-time major champion Koepka leading the way.
“I missed quite a few putts,” he said. “I could have been really low, but I’ll take it.”
Koepka is not concerned about what might happen if the Masters makes it tougher for LIV players to qualify.
“If you win here,” he noted, ‘”you’re fine.”
Mickelson shot a solid 71 despite a double-bogey at No. 11. He really took advantage of the par 5s, posting birdies at all four of the supersized holes.
Four other LIV players broke par on a balmy spring day: Smith opened with a 70, while Johnson, Patrick Reed and Joaquin Niemann matched Mickelson at 71.
Then there was Bubba Watson. The two-time Masters winner struggled to a 77, the worst score among LIV players who finished.
The founding of a rival tour has led to court battles and harsh words from both sides.
In an interesting twist, the European tour — an ally of the PGA Tour — scored an important victory Thursday when an independent tribunal ruled it could sanction members who competed in LIV Golf without permission.
The PGA Tour also has suspended players for competing on the rival tour without getting a waiver, though that doesn’t apply to the four major championships.
Garcia said he was unaware of the ruling, which could bar him from any European events he was hoping to play.
“I’m not going to talk about something without all the information that I need,” he said.
Mickelson, whose game and image plummeted after he became the oldest player to win a major at the 2021 PGA Championship, was noticeably thinner than the last time he played Augusta National. The crowd certainly noticed the 25 pounds he’s lost.
“Slim and trim!” a fan shouted after a chip at No. 3.
The 52-year-old Mickelson quipped that he “stopped eating food, that was a big help.” But it’s clear he wants to give the fans more to remember him by than the last two years, and he hopes they’ll accept where he’s going with the new tour.
Mickelson’s cap, shirt and bag carried the funky logo of his LIV team, the “Hyflyers.”
“I needed something different,” he said. “I’m having a lot of fun having three teammates and having a different energy and a fun environment, and I want to play and compete at that level. And I’m going to figure it out.”
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