Day 2 at Augusta: LIV fights back

Brooks Koepka, 2023 Masters,(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Brooks Koepka, 2023 Masters,(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images) /

Led by Brooks Koepka, the LIV Tour Masters contingent showed during second-round play that it was prepared to battle on equal footing with their PGA Tour rivals.

During the second round of the 2023 season’s rain-smitten first Major, the 16 LIV survivors – Louis Oosthuizen and Kevin Na both having withdrawn – posted a collective average of 72.31 strokes.

That was more than a half-stroke superior to the PGA Tour pros’ average of 72.90, and virtually wiped out the substantial scorecard disadvantage the LIV Tour guys carried over from round 1.

Through 36 holes, the LIV Tour vs. PGA Tour Masters subplot had developed into a legit competition: 144.29 for the PGA Tour guys vs.144.72 for the LIV Tour reps.

Koepka led the LIV Tour comeback figuratively, statistically, and literally.

As one of the first players on the course Friday morning, he had what turned out to be the substantial advantage of completing his brilliant 65 in beautiful conditions.

Then he went home, put his feet up, and watched most of his challengers fight fitfully through two Friday weather delays, winds strong enough to bring down two tall pines, and a steady Saturday morning downpour.

Even without Koepka, though, the LIV Tour players would have had the better of it statistically in round two. Phil Mickelson and Joaquin Niemann, both of whom also played early, shot matching 69s, and 10 of the 16 LIV members matched or improved their scores from round 1 to round 2.

By contrast, only 19 of the 51 PGA Tour regulars shot their round 1 score or better in round 2. As a result, while the average for LIV players dropped by a tenth of a stroke, PGA Tour scores shot upward by more than a stroke and a half, from 71.39  in round 1 to 72.90 in round 2.

Some of it was weather. Jon Rahm (four strokes worse), Viktor Hovland (eight worse), Xander Schauffele (six worse), Justin Thomas (eight worse), and Sungjae Im (five worse) were among PGA stars lashed by the worst of the weather.

But poor play also took a toll on the PGA Tour guys. Rory McIlroy shot 77 in generally good conditions, and Scottie Scheffler went from a Thursday 58 to a Friday 75 playing largely in decent conditions. Among the LIV Tour players, Cameron Smith caught the very worst of the weather and still carded an even par 72, only two strokes off his round 1 play.

To the extent the Masters is a LIV vs. PGA contest, the PGA Tour side still holds two advantages entering third-round play.

The first is the aforementioned slightly superior two-round scoring average, 144.29 to 144.72. The second is cut survivability.

The LIV Tour contingent enters Saturday’s third round having lost five of its 16 to the cutline. That’s a 31 percent attrition rate. Of the 51 PGA Tour regulars, a dozen – McIlroy and Thomas among them — finished on the wrong side of the cutline. But that still represents just a 23.5 percent casualty rate.

The major battle, of course, will be fought at the top, and there the flag-bearers could not be clearer. Koepka, at 12-under, is carrying the LIV Tour hopes. Despite their improved round 2 play, he remains the only LIV representative within seven strokes of the lead.

The next closest are Mickelson and Niemann, parts of a six-way tie for 10th at 140.

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The ranks ahead of them include PGA Tour regulars Rahm (10-under), Hovland and Collin Morikawa (6-under), Jordan Spieth, Sam Burns, Jason Day, and Cameron Young, all 5-under.

Then there’s the interloper, the one contender who represents neither of the game’s warring factions. That would be U.S. Amateur champion Sam Bennett, who turned in a second straight 68 Friday. He sits at 8-under, four behind Koepka and two behind Rahm.