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  • Dustin Johnson has always played the “big brother” role to Brooks Koepka. But when a friendship is built on a power imbalance, what happens when the balance shifts?
By Stephanie Apstein
May 18, 2019

BETHPAGE, N.Y. — Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, Brooks Kopeka had zero major victories, a double-digit world ranking and a best friend he idolized. The time was 2017, the land was Jupiter, Fla., and the friend was Dustin Johnson. At strength coach Joey Diovisalvi’s gym, where the two golfers train, banners commemorate each player who has achieved an Official World Golf Ranking No. 1. Koepka was sitting beneath Johnson’s banner one day when he piped up.

“Yo, bro, do you want to come to my party?”

“What party?”

“The party I’m going to throw when I become No. 1 in the world and Dustin’s banner comes down and mine goes up.”

Johnson laughed. “Not as long as I’m alive, you’re not,” he said.

It was funny then. It’s not so funny now.

Koepka, 29, leads the PGA Championship field by seven strokes, at 12 under par. Tied for second, at five-under, is Johnson, 34. Once upon a time, Johnson would have seemed like the most obvious candidate to blow away the field on Sunday on a course that measures 7,432 yards but that some golfers have said is playing closer to 7,700. Instead, it’s Koepka who seems to have the tournament locked up.

They will not be paired together on Sunday—Johnson will tee off at 2:15 p.m. with Hideki Matsuyama, Koepka at 2:35 with Harold Varner III—but they will each be well aware of what the other is doing. People close to Koepka have long felt he plays better when paired with Johnson; Johnson said after Saturday’s round that the two push each other to perform.

They have been friends for years, since Koepka returned to the U.S. from the European Tour in 2015. When Koepka’s house was being renovated, Johnson offered to take him in; they were roommates for six months. Koepka joined Diovisalvi’s gym on Johnson’s advice. Hours before their final-round pairing in last year’s U.S. Open, they worked out together. Their mutual coach, Claude Harmon III, sometimes marvels that it seems like the two are on the same team.

At that U.S. Open, Johnson took a four-shot lead into the weekend. He entered Sunday tied with Koepka, then collapsed as Koepka shone. Johnson left without speaking to reporters. Koepka did his press tour, flew home and collapsed on his couch, finally waking at 8 p.m. to Johnson’s voice as he let himself in through the sliding glass door. “Yo,” Johnson said. “Whatcha doing?”

But when a friendship is built on a power imbalance—Johnson has always played the role of big brother, Koepka of little—what happens when the balance shifts?

Johnson has won 20 tournaments but just one major, the 2016 U.S. Open. Four times he has played Sunday at a major with at least a share of the lead, then let it slip away: the ’10 U.S. Open, when he shot a final-round 82 to finish tied for eighth; the PGA two months later, when he grounded his club in an unmarked bunker and fell to a tie for fifth; the ’15 U.S. Open, when he bogeyed three of four holes to start the back nine; and last year’s U.S. Open. That tournament was Koepka’s second major victory, and he has since added last year’s PGA. He is poised to make it four in eight tries on Sunday. He seems built for the spotlight and unmoved by the intervening weeks: Outside of majors, he has only two wins on Tour.

Johnson acknowledged this week that his struggles in the biggest moments bother him. “A little frustrated sometimes,” he said, “Just because I've had quite a few chances and I've felt like a few of them I played well. But that's just how it is. It's hard to win majors. If it was easy, a lot of guys would have a lot more than they do.”

Johnson had long been the more famous friend, and that may still be true. Koepka can rattle off a list of times he’s been asked to take a photo of Johnson and a fan. Koepka seemed to field questions about Johnson in every interview he gave. Even after winning his second consecutive U.S. Open, Koepka was asked who was better in the gym. (Johnson on lower-body exercises, Koepka on upper-body ones, he said.)

The friends reportedly came nearly to blows at the Ryder Cup in September, although Koepka has denied that anything happened. U.S. captain Jim Furyk told a slightly different story than Koepka. “Whatever altercation started, or what happened, it was very brief. It was very short,” Furyk said. “They’re like brothers. Brothers may argue. Brothers get into it. But they’re as close as they’ve ever been, and it really had no effect on either one of them.”

Still, it’s not easy when the foundation of a relationship shifts, and if you listen closely, you can hear small acknowledgements of that. They filmed perhaps the worst-acted spot of all time in October, when Koepka won the PGA Tour Player of the Year award. “Congratulations,” Johnson says stiffly. “You know, I’ve got one of these, too.”

And after shooting a 69 on Saturday, Johnson was asked to assess Koepka’s game.

“He’s a good player,” Johnson said. “I see a lot of myself.”

Johnson remains world No. 1. They remain friends. They say they will live happily ever after. But as Johnson walked toward his courtesy car after his round on Saturday, he was asked if they would work out together Sunday morning.

“Probably not,” he said.

He was laughing, but he did not seem to find it funny.

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