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Souhan: Masters champ Rahm should pair red face with green jacket

AUGUSTA, GA. – The Masters, as the first scheduled and most familiar of golf's majors, has always represented the symbolic start of the golf season. This year, The Masters seems somehow even more important and symbolic, because LIV golfers did not compete at The Players Championship in March, making Augusta National the site of an awkward if promising reunion.

LIV golf's problem is that nobody is watching.

The PGA Tour's problem is that we are watching nobodies.

LIV, the upstart golf tour started by Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF), has been excluded from PGA Tour events. Golf's four majors are run by organizations other than the PGA Tour, so LIV players are allowed to enter, if they are invited or qualify.

Thirteen LIV players are in this year's Masters field, and seven have won green jackets. For the first time this season, Jon Rahm, Brooks Koepka, Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Scottie Scheffler will compete together.

The momentary reunion is occurring as both tours look diminished and are holding intermittent negotiations aimed at reconciliation.

LIV players are engaging in the ultimate form of "sportswashing" — acting as pitchmen for a country known for human rights abuses and producing most of the 9/11 hijackers, and for murdering journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The PGA Tour made this argument to gain the moral high ground in the rivalry, only then to backstab its most vocal defenders by agreeing to negotiate with LIV.

The PGA Tour players who remained vocally loyal to the traditional tour, like McIlroy, were left looking like their loyalty had been misguided.

Tuesday, many of the game's biggest stars held news conferences in The Masters' interview room, headlined by Rahm, the defending champion who is perhaps the player most emblematic of golf's still-cold war.

When LIV first courted him, he seized the high ground.

On Feb. 22, 2022, Rahm said this: "This is my official, my one and only time I'll talk about this, where I am declaring my fealty to the PGA Tour. I don't do this for the money, which is the only reason to go over there. They throw money at you. I'm in this game for the love of golf.''

He also criticized LIV's 54-hole, no-cut tournaments.

Last December, Rahm joined LIV for a reported $350 million.

On March 19, he said he would like LIV to begin playing 72-hole tournaments, and said of his departure from the PGA Tour, "I'm not going to lie, for everybody who said this would be easy, some things have been, but not being able to defend some titles that mean a lot to me hasn't."

On Tuesday, Rahm admitted that he misses playing in certain PGA Tour tournaments, and positioned himself as someone who hoped his departure would speed a reunion.

"I understood that it could be, what I hoped, a step towards some kind of agreement, yes," he said. "Or more of an agreement or expedited agreement. But, unfortunately, it's not up to me. But I would hope it would be something that would help expedite that process. But at the end of the day, I still did what I thought was best for myself."

Debates over sportswashing can become murky. Here's a clear way to look at it: If the survivors of those killed in the Sept. 11 attacks are against you, you're probably not on the right side of history.

Rahm seemed to be a champion in deed and reputation a year ago. He was still with the PGA Tour, and he earned a spot in the final pairing at The Masters with leader Brooks Koepka, an LIV star. Rahm beat him soundly that Sunday to win his first green jacket.

"I still love the PGA Tour," Rahm said on Tuesday. "I still hope for the best, and I still hope that at some point I can compete there again."

A previous Rahm quote distills the decision he and his LIV compatriots made: "I still did what I thought was best for myself."