Boobirds at PGA Championship make clear that Koepka is no Phil Mickelson but more like other sports stars who failed to feel loved
Like horseflies drawn to cow dung, trouble seems to find Brooks Koepka whenever a stink arises, which is relatively often. Not since Seve Ballesteros has one of the world’s best golfers moonlighted as a conscientious dissenter. In a classic case of touche´, the public has taken to portraying Brusque Brooksie as something of a pariah.
That sprinkle of boos directed his way during the first-tee introductions last Sunday at the PGA Championship was kind of sad. Rarely, if ever, do you hear any disdain aimed at American players performing in their own country. Everybody and their sister wanted to see Phil Mickelson win the tournament, a notion validated by the gonzo applause Lefty received shortly before Koepka stuck his peg into the ground. When the intros were repeated on the ninth green and the crowd reacted in similar manner, however, the message was hard to miss.
Philly Mick is a man of the people. Brooks Koepka is a man of portent.
He made a point of saying his surgically repaired knee was “dinged” by spectators rushing the 18th green as Mickelson applied the final touches to his sixth major title. Koepka would have been better off saying nothing. His comments sounded like an indictment of passionate golf fans, many of whom he’d already alienated, and his gripe was poorly timed. Mickelson won. Koepka didn’t. Why bring a sour-grapes intonation into play when history had just been made?
Not 48 hours later, we were treated to the instantly infamous video footage of Koepka blowing his stack over an awkward interruption from Bryson DeChambeau during a television interview. Everybody and their other sister are aware that the dark-haired muscleman despises the blond-haired one, which is why Koepka squeezed more profanities into five seconds than the number of majors he has won in four years.
Of course, that depends on your interpretation of a cuss word.
The episode perfectly illustrates the great contradiction that is Brooks Koepka. He says he doesn’t care what people think of him, that he pays no attention to the common man’s perception or his reputation among fellow tour pros, then acts in completely opposite fashion. He cares too much. He plays it cool, then loses his cool. It transmits an indiscriminately negative vibe to Joe Sixpack and all the other 16-handicaps willing to fawn over any world-class golfer who seems like a decent guy.
In this case, bad keeps getting worse. Koepka is working his way into a tiny group of elite, ultra-famous athletes who were unbeloved by a sports-crazed culture. He is Sonny Liston without the jail time, although Liston’s impoverished upbringing and prison sentence turned him into one of the most devastating and enigmatic boxers of all-time.
Wilt Chamberlain was one of the most remarkable physical specimens the good Lord ever constructed, but he was stigmatized as an underachiever, even a loser, by a world full of 5-foot-9 guys who expected so much more. Hall of Fame pitcher Steve Carlton won 329 major-league games, four Cy Youngs and a couple of World Series, which is a lot to be happy about, but he was just plain difficult. The same was thought of Boston Red Sox outfielder Jim Rice, probably the most feared hitter of his generation.
Carl Yastrzemski will forever remain a god in Beantown. During a game in August 1982, Rice rushed out of the dugout and into the stands to help a 4-year-old boy who had just been struck in the head by a line drive. Rice took the kid in his arms, carried him across the field and into the clubhouse, where the boy received immediate treatment for what doctors called a life-threatening injury. The boy would undergo emergency surgery and spend five days in the hospital, but he made a full recovery.
How many people can say they saved a child’s life? How many people even know what Rice did?
Ivan Lendl never won at Wimbledon, never drank a single can of charisma and never found the key to unlock America’s heart. The guy piled up 94 singles titles, for crying out loud. He spent 270 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world and collected eight majors, but the thing most folks remember about tennis in that era is how Jimmy Connors was the ultimate competitor, a fist-pumping warrior from the good ol’ Midwest.
Steph Curry is one of the most popular players in NBA history. Russell Westbrook, meanwhile, does things on a basketball court that no one has ever done. He plays through injuries that would leave anybody else bolted to the couch, but he limits his smiles to one every three years or so. By any reasonable estimation, Westbrook is immensely respected and hardly adored.
He isn’t Steph. He shouldn’t have to be.
Some superstars fall out of public favor because they did something really stupid, such as smash their car into a fire hydrant or take steroids so they can hit more home runs. For every Tiger or A-Rod – and there is only one of each – there is a Brooks Koepka. A harmless scoundrel who finds strength in conflict, which might be why he has such awesome biceps. A four-time major champion who almost won a fifth last week, a big-game monster who plays hard when he feels like it, says whatever he wants without fear of ramification and does things one way.
His way. It works. Sort of.
Charles Barkley was right. He didn’t have to be your role model. He didn’t owe us anything but an intense desire to win and a willingness to do what it takes to achieve that task. You can check both of those boxes, but in his day, Barkley was a hell-raising rebel who once threw a guy through a bar window. The NBA fined him $320. No criminal charges were filed. Twenty-four years later, he is one of the most likable and instinctively bright analysts in all of sports.
He’s very popular. He could run for governor in Alabama and stand a chance. Brooks Koepka, do yourself a favor. Give the old Round Mound of Rebound a call.
Sign up to receive the Morning Read newsletter, along with Where To Golf Next and The Equipment Insider.