News & Opinion

Who’s the boss? Koepka, of course, and it’s not just talk

He’s No. 1 in world and, to hear him tell it, has no equals on PGA Tour

Professional golf is a game with an abundance of slow news weeks, as opposed to, say, the NBA, which has taken to filling its idle time with self-serving social commentary and other dangerous forms of public interaction. Your corporate partners might act like they’re listening, but seriously, nobody cares what LeBron James thinks about the unrest in China. All intelligent athletes should consult Michael Jordan’s guide to superstardom when it comes to taking a stand on political and cultural issues.

If it’s not about my league, it’s out of my league.

We’ve obviously reached the least relevant part of the golf season, which probably shouldn’t be part of the season at all, and given the recent lack of participation among top-tier players in this year’s extended fall schedule, they apparently feel the same way. Things will heat up a bit now that the PGA Tour has made its way to Asia, a stretch that began last week with Justin Thomas beating a quality field in South Korea and Brooks Koepka reminding everyone who’s the boss.

2019 Tour Championship
Brooks Koepka dismisses any talk of a rivalry with Rory McIlroy, reasoning that the Northern Irishman hasn’t won a major championship during Koepka’s tenure on the PGA Tour.

Asked about his budding rivalry with Rory McIlroy – the kind of question you hear when there’s nothing else to talk about – Koepka went with the 93-mph slider. “I’ve been out here for, what, five years, and Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour,” Koepka said. “I’m not looking at anybody behind me. I’m No. 1 in the world. I’ve got an open road in front of me, and I’m not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don’t see it as a rivalry.”

God bless the big fella, who responds to just about every inquiry regarding his competition with a spoken sneer. Koepka has remained remarkably consistent in recent months when it comes to denouncing his primary foes, which is widely considered taboo in golf. It’s almost as if he wants to see how far he can walk on the plank before the boat tips and sends him head-first into the Scurrilous Sea, which isn’t to suggest that Koepka isn’t also an outstanding swimmer.

Some people get turned off by this kind of talk. “In general, I just thought it was disrespectful,” Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said of Koepka’s latest jab. Apparently, it’s OK for an ex-tour pro to make a living off his own critical insight, yet the men whom he talks about aren’t allowed to do the same. Of course, the Chamblee-Koepka tiff has been going on for most of the calendar year. The little guy with the silver hair keeps hopping into the ring to mess with Big Bad Brooks, and Koepka has at times retaliated, perhaps because he looked around and saw nothing but bodies already lying on the floor.

We can go back to the early/mid-2000s, once the Tiger Woods dynasty had fully evolved and a small but somewhat able collection of pursuers was looking to overthrow the government, either collectively or as individuals. Phil Mickelson, Ernie Els, Vijay Singh and Retief Goosen all played the best golf of their lives during this period. The rivalry thing became a very fashionable talking point, a whimsical, perfect-world scenario in which greatness would collide over and over.

It’s too bad, but that’s not how pro golf works. Army and Navy play a football game every December. That’s a rivalry. Cowboys-Redskins, Ohio State-Michigan, Your Town vs. My Town… The sole basis for such emotionally charged competition comes from all the great stuff that occurred in the past. In the particular context, that doesn’t include some silly little tournament in Atlanta where McIlroy managed to overcome Koepka once and everybody walked away extremely wealthy.

We wish, we wish. Rivalries are really interesting. Terrific theater, high on drama and low on artificial ingredients, and the minute people start trying to contrive them is the point at which they start to lose perspective. Isn’t it convenient that everyone forgets how Koepka slaughtered McIlroy in a Sunday showdown at the WGC in Memphis a few months ago? Or that Koepka is absolutely right, that McIlroy hasn’t claimed a major title since the 2014 PGA?

That five-man assault on Woods, by the way, never materialized. Tiger rebounded from a majorless 2004 and spent the next four years basically destroying all comers. He was a better player in the latter half of the 2000s than he was when he won four consecutive majors at the beginning of the decade. He is perhaps the finest competitive fighting machine ever assembled, an intense and brilliant performer who saw the enemy coming and was fully prepared when it arrived.

Koepka, 29, hasn’t reached that level yet, and he probably never will, but it’s one hell of a good thing for golf that he’s trying. His anti-traditional run to greatness reminds me of that shampoo commercial featuring model Kelly LeBrock in the mid-1980s, in which she emerged from the shower towel-drying her hair and quipped, “Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.”

She was. And so is a four-time major champion who can walk the talk and make us squawk.