Americans Brooks Koepka, left, and Phil Mickelson shared second at the Masters last month and showed LIV Golf players can contend for major titles against rivals from the PGA Tour

Rochester (United States) (AFP) - After three LIV Golf players finished in the top six at last month’s Masters, few will write off the Saudi-backed circuit’s chances to produce a PGA Championship winner.

Elite golf’s civil war gets its second showdown of the year starting Thursday at Oak Hill, where the best players from the US PGA Tour and LIV Golf League battle for bragging rights and a major title.

Rich deals from the Saudi-supported breakaway group lured several top stars from the PGA Tour, which then banned LIV players from its events. Lawsuits followed but the court fight is at least a year away.

In the meantime, the four major tournaments have kept their entry rules and serve as the crucible for such LIV stars as reigning British Open champion Cam Smith of Australia to face top PGA talent like Masters champion Jon Rahm of Spain.

Phil Mickelson, who won the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island to become the oldest major winner at age 50, skipped last year’s PGA after critical comments about LIV’s Saudi backers were made public.

The six-time major champion is back this week after sharing second in the Masters with fellow LIV Golfer Brooks Koepka, confident the upstart players have made their point.

“There are players from all over the world on many different tours and you’re bringing the best to play against each other in the majors,” Mickelson said. “That’s what the game of golf should be.”

Or as LIV’s Harold Varner put it about the breakaway crowd: “I guess they don’t suck.”

Masters fans and PGA players welcomed LIV players at Augusta National, setting aside harsh words in some cases to focus on golf.

“It was good for the fans to see that we still communicate, still play together, still practice together, do everything the exact same,” four-time major winner Koepka said. “And nobody really had any negative thing to say. We’re still the same people.”

So far no LIV player has won a major since joining the circuit although the LIV contingent at the PGA Championship has amassed 17 majors among them over the years.

There will be 18 LIV players at the PGA Championship. But with LIV events not receiving world ranking points and majors using world rankings in deciding berths, future spots for LIV talent could depend on doing well at the majors.

“If the majors continue to have that as their ranking system, then they are biting it quite heavily,” said LIV’s Bryson DeChambeau. “It’s disappointing that somebody takes such a hard stance.”

“If these tournaments are the best in the world, you’ve got to have the best (players),” two-time Masters winner Bubba Watson of LIV said. “To keep them out or to make them lose world ranking points is not the right way to go.”

- Can PGA, LIV co-exist? -

With music at events and golf mixed in with other entertainment, LIV offers a new vibe compared to the more structured PGA Tour and hopes to co-exist.

“It’s a different product but it’s definitely really cool,” Mexican LIV player Abraham Ancer said. “I don’t feel like you need to pick sides. You just have another option to watch golf.”

The PGA Tour has created designated events with big purses and limited fields to rival what LIV offered, and Australia’s Jason Day said the changes have helped everyone.

“A lot of the decisions we’ve made, there has been a reaction to what LIV has brought to the table,” Day said.

“To be honest, I think everyone’s better for it. We’re playing for more money on both sides. What’s more sustainable, I’m not sure, but I’m looking at the picture right now and it feels pretty good.”

Watson sees growing the sport as a win for both tours.

“It’s about all of us coming together… and watch the game of golf grow to a place it has never been before,” Watson said.

“Not as fast as some people want and not as nice as some people want, but I think we’re in the right spot and 10 years from now, it will be a different conversation.”

Aussie LIV player Marc Leishman compared LIV’s 54-hole events and PGA tournaments to one-day and Twenty20 cricket formats, saying there’s room for both to entertain golf fans.

“I do hope there gets to a position where there’s resolution to this, because the game of golf doesn’t need to suffer,” said LIV Golf commissioner Greg Norman.

“It’s (the PGA Tour’s) choice of what they want to do and if they want to keep putting up road blocks, we’re not going to go anywhere.”