During a stroll at Bethpage Black, in advance of the 2019 US PGA Championship, I struck up conversation with one of Europe’s leading Ryder Cup players. As said golfer prolonged his reconnaissance work on a green, he waved for the group behind to play through. He duly identified one of the party as yet another hero of the yellow and blue for the biennial event against the United States. “If I knew it was him, I would have left him waiting on the fairway.” And he wasn’t kidding.
That snapshot came to mind last week, as a supposedly epic spat between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau sent golf’s chattering classes into a state of frenzy. Koepka, at Kiawah Island’s staging of the US PGA, backed off mid-Golf Channel interview as DeChambeau walked behind the platform. DeChambeau is heard to vent his feelings – as he does – and his metal spikes created the kind of background racket that may well have led to a retake anyway. Koepka, his disdain perfectly clear, claims he “lost his train of thought” amid DeChambeau’s “bullshit”. Whether DeChambeau is actually addressing Koepka is unclear but it mattered not; the snippet was mysteriously leaked and, millions of page views later, created a level of general excitement that typically greets mating season for the pandas at Edinburgh Zoo.
Within this, some of the analysis was genuinely hilarious. Normally sane observers rushed to point out what a disgrace it was that such footage entered the public domain in the first place. Applying this logic, golf has become such a horrendously sanitised world that authentic content – or thought – must somehow be protected. Koepka uttered a couple of sweary words but in the grand scheme of sport and life did no harm to anybody.
The trouble here is that golf tries overly hard to be sport in its purest – and actually most unnatural – form. This is a world where broadcasters have become partners and behave with sycophancy. It is a scene where everybody must get along in perfect harmony. Erik van Rooyen smashed a tee box to smithereens during an extraordinary temper tantrum at the US PGA, endangering volunteers and a caddie in the process, but we will never learn his punishment because that is not what golf does. Bad for the brand. The smell of cordite sends golf’s administrators into cold sweats.
That Koepka and DeChambeau, two alpha males of contrasting professional approach, may not see eye to eye should be no surprise to anybody. As they joust for major championships, it would be pretty dull if they did. Wander around leading amateur events the world over and you will encounter indifference between – frequently precious – players. They don’t turn professional and start holding hands. “That’s the way it is out here,” said Shane Lowry. “I think people go wild for stuff like that but at the end of the day there’s 150 big egos. Not everyone is going to like everyone.” It should be stressed that Lowry, still the Open champion, remains endearingly free from self-admiration.
We have also been subjected to earnest theories about how this episode may undermine US attempts to reclaim the Ryder Cup at Whistling Straits in September. Perhaps Koepka and DeChambeau will attack each other with four-irons during the Friday foursomes as Europeans share ice lollies. My Bethpage experience aside, this actually belies the lessons of history. Nick Faldo and Colin Montgomerie were Ryder Cup legends who would never win popularity contests among the European players who soaked them in champagne after seeing off the Americans. Thomas Bjørn infuriated Henrik Stenson by questioning a drop in Dubai in 2014. Four years later, they were both integral to a resounding Ryder Cup success in Paris. Sergio García and Padraig Harrington have a colourful past that will not matter one iota when the Irishman is compiling his team for Whistling Straits.
It is also legitimate to question the true extent of this mutual antipathy. Koepka and DeChambeau spent the days after the “offending” video trading public blows akin to tickling one’s pet cat. It all looked a little too friendly or contrived to represent intense dislike. Galatasaray v Fenerbahce this is not.
Sceptics have pointed towards the PGA Tour’s implementation of a player impact programme as a possible cause for a rare leak. It is a decent conspiracy theory but not one which stands up to much scrutiny. The level of wins – and prize money – enjoyed by Koepka and DeChambeau means they are unlikely to care about a metric involving Twitter impressions. Between them, they have $60m in on-course earnings alone.
Koepka claimed he would not care if the footage was used within Golf Channel’s domain. Those who know the four-times major winner well insist that, for all his bravado, he is well capable of handling whatever broadsides come his way. He even enjoys them. It is safe to assume he has lost no sleep over this swipe going viral.
Golf finds itself in an overwhelmingly positive position. Phil Mickelson’s Kiawah triumph was a story to transcend his sport. Figures recently released show a 2.3 million increase in on-course playing adults in 2020 throughout Great Britain and Ireland. In the US the scene is similar, with the average age of players dropping and more women enjoying the game. A ghastly Saudi Arabia-backed breakaway tour is fading slowly towards oblivion. In short, golf does not need Brooks, Bryson and brickbats to stay relevant. When such moments arise, they should just be afforded appropriate context.