LA JOLLA, Calif. – Bryson DeChambeau arrived here as the reigning champion of the U.S. Open, and Brooks Koepka arrived as the reigning champion of mocking Bryson DeChambeau. Their feud is not just the talk of golf; it has grabbed the attention of anybody who likes some good old-fashioned loathing.
Spend a little time around Koepka and DeChambeau, and you see why they don’t get along. This is not like when Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson disliked each other; that animus was built on the golf course, two extreme competitors trying to rule the sport, and it ended when Tiger and Phil matured and realized that becoming pals, at least in public, was economically convenient.
Koepka and DeChambeau have never been the two best players in the world. They have never been the two most popular players in the world. They have never gone shot-for-shot against each other on Sunday afternoon at a major. Theirs is not a professional rivalry that became personal; it is fundamentally personal.
DeChambeau is everything Koepka hates about his profession: A self-serious nerd who makes golf seem more complicated and interesting than Koepka claims it is. DeChambeau has been so lost in his own brain for so long that he often has no idea how he looks to the outside world. To Koepka, DeChambeau has played too slow, talked too much, complained about too many minor nuisances and, perhaps, most importantly, he is an easy target, and Koepka loves easy targets.
Koepka is perpetually the coolest, most confident person in any room, and he is always aware of it. His father Bob says that when Brooks was a kid and there was no indication he might become good enough to be a professional golfer someday, Brooks not only believed it, but he seemed maddeningly unconcerned about what might happen to him if he didn’t make it.
DeChambeau has mostly avoided the conflict, other than one silly comment that Koepka does not have six-pack abs. I don’t think DeChambeau really wants a feud. That’s not his way. He once told me he has approached Koepka multiple times to try to clear the air, but Koepka wasn’t receptive. DeChambeau wants everybody to get along and listen to him talk about the science of golf, and he has this somewhat naïve dream that he can somehow inspire–his word–people to love the game like he does. It’s naïve because even professional golfers do not love the game in the same way he does.
Koepka loves the game, but doesn’t seem to want anyone to know. He enjoys telling people that golf is kind of boring to watch. If you watched the recent viral video of Koepka losing his concentration during a Golf Channel interview when DeChambeau walked past him, you saw what has been clear for a while: Koepka genuinely dislikes DeChambeau, and he enjoys disliking him. Every step DeChambeau takes in his completely unnecessary metal spikes reminds Brooks that Bryson takes himself too seriously.
If they went to high school together, DeChambeau would spend weeks building the best entry in the science fair, and Koepka would short-circuit it. But because they play professional golf, Koepka must find other ways to needle DeChambeau. He has done that repeatedly over the last year, but it didn’t quite blow up until that Golf Channel video.
That video was hilarious. But then Koepka fans heckled Bryson at the Memorial Tournament by calling him “Brooksie,” and when those fans were ejected, Koepka grabbed the needle again. Koepka is chummy with Barstool Sports founder Dave Portnoy, and he pulled a Barstool move: releasing a video promising free beer to anybody who was kicked out.
That was also hilarious, but it crossed a line. Golfers should not be encouraging fans to heckle other players. That goes against the spirit of the game. That might seem like a curmudgeonly opinion, but for all of golf’s historical shortcomings, treating fellow competitors with respect is one of the game’s core values. It is also essential to holding a fair competition.
The DeChambeau-Koepka feud should be viewed in that context: One loves it, and the other might not. DeChambeau said Tuesday that the banter was “fun,” and that he thinks it’s funny when fans call him “Brooksie,” but that is probably his way of insisting Koepka hasn’t gotten to him. DeChambeau has decided not to publicly complain about Koepka’s trolling. It will only make life harder for him. He did say it could be a problem if it affects the “integrity” of the competition, but said that hasn’t happened yet.
It could happen this week. That is why, while many fans and analysts wanted Brooks and Bryson grouped together this week, the USGA was wise to keep them apart, as organizers of other tournaments have done. It is easy to ask for the most entertaining groupings when crowd behavior is not your problem.
As it is, the USGA should be concerned about how Koepka fans will treat DeChambeau this week. The PGA Tour has a more delicate ongoing challenge: How can it embrace the Brooks-Bryson feud without letting it get out of hand?
If you follow golf at all, you have heard or read about a “Premier Golf League” or “Super Golf League”–both proposed worldwide leagues that could allow super-elite male golfers to compete against each other for even more money than they already make.
American sports fans have seen many upstart leagues fail over the years. The best-case scenario for those leagues, which hasn’t unfolded in decades, is usually an ABA- or AFL-style merger. So it is easy to dismiss these stories. It is also not clear whether the Premier or Super Golf League is a serious threat. But they are threats that the PGA Tour has to take seriously.
Golf is not structured like other sports. The PGA Tour does not control most of the game’s premier venues, and it does not control any of the four majors. There are players who are not members of the PGA Tour in every major field. PGA Tour players are not employees; the Tour works for them. This gives stars (and their agents) leverage over the Tour that Tom Brady (and his agent) wished he had during Deflategate, and that is without the looming threat of a rival league.
As different as they are, Koepka and DeChambeau are both logical candidates to consider leaving for the PGL or SGL. Koepka already says he doesn’t have much interest in regular PGA Tour events, and he enjoys rankling golf traditionalists. DeChambeau sees himself as constantly rethinking the game, breaking it to put it back together again, proselytizing to a new generation of fans. He is also not likely to feel beholden to tradition.
That doesn’t mean either will leave. But it does give them even more power than the game’s best players have traditionally had. Koepka and DeChambeau are potential free agents. PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has to treat them that way.
The PGA Tour has long straddled a line between meritocracy and star system. Unlike other sports, players do not receive salaries; they are supposed to earn money on the course. This can annoy agents who argue that stars sell tickets and should get a cut whether or not they make the cut. The Tour bars players from receiving appearance fees for participating in certain events, but agents have exploited a work-around to that: Their players sign endorsement deals, then play in events sponsored by the company they endorse. Woods used to promise Buick he would play in at least two of the four annual events that the auto manufacturer sponsored. DeChambeau and Rickie Fowler will appear at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in a few weeks mostly because they endorse Rocket Mortgage.
This year, the Tour announced another attempt to keep stars happy: a Player Impact Program, which will award $40 million to the 10 players who create buzz, with $8 million to No. 1. The stars get the money, but to collect it, they also have to agree to play a PGA Tour event they haven’t played before the following season. That boosts lesser-known events–and the lesser-known players who need them.
It is tempting to look at the Koepka-DeChambeau feud and wonder what the Player Impact Program has wrought. Does it really want players encouraging fans to heckle? Does it want to pay them to encourage that behavior?
The Tour says the Player Impact Program is designed to reward players who “positively move the needle.” The word “positively” is open to interpretation. Rory McIlroy, the president of the Tour’s players’ advisory council, has said the viral video of DeChambeau irritating Koepka was “like the best thing ever.” But that was before Koepka offered beer to people who were ejected from the Memorial. Koepka said Tuesday that the PGA Tour did not contact him about that.
The Tour has metrics to determine who gets PIP money, and the formula can be tweaked every year. So gaming this system is not as easy as it might seem.
I don’t think Koepka is trying to game the system, any more than DeChambeau set out to annoy Koepka. The feud happened organically, and it’s a lot of fun, just as Tiger-Phil and Arnie-Jack were. The key for everybody involved is making sure it stays fun.
More from Morning Read:
• Justin Thomas Refreshes Memory of Torrey Pines
• A Case for Phil Mickelson to Win U.S. Open … or Not
• Just in Time for U.S. Open, Dustin Johnson Unleashes a New Driver Shaft
• The 2008 U.S. Open Doesn't Belong on Mount Rushmore of Championships