By now you will have almost certainly seen the 45-second clip of Brooks Koepka that leaked after last week’s PGA Championship. The one where, as Bryson DeChambeau trundles past, Koepka is consumed by such open disdain that he appears to totally malfunction, his eyeballs rolling back into his head like a pair of dead fish floating to the surface. “I f****** … I lost my train of thought hearing that b*******,” he says as his rival’s metal spikes crunch on the patio. “F****** Christ.”
It is rare for golf to broach into the realm of viral sensation. This is, after all, the most manicured and doctored of all sports, from its pristine outfits, ubiquitous sponsors and homogenous personalities right down to those perfect blades of grass dyed an extra shade of green for good measure. Once in a blue moon, there might be an eccentric rebel who defies convention, but for the most part, you’d have a hard time differentiating your average pro in a police line-up. “That’s him, officer, the 6ft white male in beige trousers, an offensively patterned polo shirt and baseball cap.”
In the absence of a transcending icon like Tiger Woods, that longstanding uniformity has usually left golf to thrive on great rivalries to define its eras: Palmer vs Nicklaus, Faldo vs Norman, Sorenstam vs Webb. Since the turn of the century, it is also something the sport has sorely lacked.
Phil Mickelson can claim to have been Woods’ best opponent, but in truth, their spheres of greatness are hardly comparable, even after the 50-year-old’s record-breaking victory at Kiawah Island. And while many have attempted to step into the void left in Woods’ absence, this generation’s most gifted players have rarely peaked simultaneously. Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth both stuttered after catapulting into the spotlight. Dustin Johnson saw a legacy of opportunities slip through his grasp at the majors. Whereas Woods once cast a cold and confrontational dominance, there is a warm cordiality, even a vulnerability, at the apex of today’s game. It does not detract from the fierce competitiveness, but a rotating cast will always find it harder to capture the imagination.
For that reason, the simmering animosity between Koepka and DeChambeau is a welcome storyline. Both major champions in or entering their primes, on the surface at least, there is nothing gentle about their antipathy. They may still look decidedly similar – hulking Americans with a shared obsession for weightlifting and diets – but their personalities are polar opposites, the aggrieved athlete versus the obsessive scientist, and the cracks in the ice have long been visible.
They first emerged in 2019, when Koepka aired widespread frustrations surrounding DeChambeau’s “embarrassing” pace of play, which has on occasion been so painful as to encompass all four seasons. That led to a minor confrontation on a practice putting green when DeChambeau indirectly told Koepka to “say it to his face” – an invitation that was unhesitatingly accepted. The pair appeared to reconcile soon afterwards, although only after Koepka affirmed, somewhat jokingly, that he’d win in a physical fight.
If it all felt rather “petty”, as Koepka himself described it, the sourness became notably more personal after moving into vanity stakes. When Koepka lost a significant amount of weight for a magazine spread in ESPN’s Body Issue magazine, DeChambeau said: “I don’t think his genetics even make him look good. He didn’t have any abs. I have abs.” The remark prompted Koepka to post a picture of his four major championship trophies with the caption: “You were right. I am two short of a six-pack,” and later insinuated that DeChambeau’s outburst at a cameraman was the product of steroid-induced rage.
The sense of barely disguised loathing appeared to come to a naked boil at the PGA Championship, where Koepka finished in second after a bitterly disappointing final round. However, some have, perhaps rightly, questioned whether the hostility is in fact confected, particularly after the PGA Tour recently introduced a $40m fund to reward those who “move the needle” regardless of their performance. The watered-down barbs exchanged since the PGA Championship, with DeChambeau claiming to “live rent-free” in Koepka’s head while announcing a lucrative NFL-crossover match, certainly felt opportunistic, if not entirely premeditated.
But while it is dangerous to endorse any manufactured or superficial hysteria, there is no doubt that prickly rivalries will only help to give golf new blood. After all, sport’s most memorable rivalries are rarely fought in polite silence. Be it genuine or a gimmick, Koepka and DeChambeau’s feud will draw more eyes to run-of-the-mill events, and can render a field of largely indistinguishable players far more distinct.