When the PGA Championship tees off at Bethpage Black on Thursday, it’ll mark the first time in more than a decade that Tiger Woods stands over the field as winner of the previous major.
Yet a lot of players in the field weren’t around at the 2009 Masters to know quite what that was like. Brooks Koepka, for example, was still 18 years old and about to head to Florida State to join the golf team there. A decade-long circuitous path to the top through college golf and the European tour hadn’t yet begun.
While the golf world is curious to see how today’s players deal with the once-feared concept of a stalking Tiger, the one sure bet is that Koepka — the winner of the last two U.S. Opens and defending PGA champion — won’t be fazed.
“I mean, what's the point in fearing anybody?” a stoic Koepka asked in his pre-tournament news conference on Tuesday. “We're not fighting. I mean, unless I was standing there and not prepared for a punch. Other than that, he's not going to knock my teeth in. He's not going to hurt me. So what's there to be afraid of?”
Now, some would say that teeing it up against a resurrected Woods in the wake of his 15th major win might be a tad intimidating. And perhaps it will be for some of the millennial crowd who were still being driven to junior events by their parents the last time Tiger was winning majors.
But not the 29-year-old Koepka, who finished two strokes ahead of a second-place Woods at last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive before finishing just one stroke behind him at last month’s Masters. Koepka is ranked third in the world, while the 43-year-old Woods is sixth.
The two players will be paired with reigning British Open champ Francesco Molinari for the first two rounds at Bethpage and it should make for must-see TV.
Not that Koepka was buying into the hype of the obvious narrative here.
“I don't see it as a rivalry,” Koepka said. “I mean, it's just golf. I mean, it's not like football where you've got a rivalry that's been over 20, 30 years.”
But it’s the last 20 or 30 years that makes this matchup such a tasty one for golf fans. As Woods himself pointed out on Tuesday, it’s the generational links that make golf a special one. Woods was paired with Jack Nicklaus at the 2000 PGA Championship, the last one Nicklaus ever played.
Similarly, Nicklaus was paired with Gene Sarazen at the 1972 PGA Championship, the last one the seven-time major winner ever played.
The difference is that Woods won’t be retiring his clubs after playing a couple rounds with Koepka. This weekend, fans on Long Island will not only get to enjoy the past (Woods) and present (Koepka) but also entertain the promise of the future (Koepka turning into the rival we always wanted for Tiger for a few years?).
Everything seems on the table after watching Woods do the impossible.
Woods won his second U.S. Open (and eighth overall major) at Bethpage in 2002, using his length off the tee to outpace the field. It’s Koepka now that inhabits the role of the tour’s master smasher, though rains early in the week could negate that advantage and favor Woods’ experience on the track instead.
Asked on Tuesday if Koepka’s athleticism reminded of him in his younger days, Woods just laughed.
“No, I wish, I was never that big,” Woods said. “I was 130 pounds.”
Though both have succeeded with superior club speed, Woods pointed out they arrived at the same place through different methods.
“I didn't have muscle. I did it through whip and timing,” Woods said. “Brooksy has just got pure power and he's an athlete. He played other sports, and he could have easily been a baseball player.”
Hearing Woods talk about Koepka on Tuesday — and vice versa — it’s clear that there’s a healthy respect between the two players who were Ryder Cup teammates last fall. Koepka was a prominent member of the group of players who stayed to congratulate Woods after he stepped off the 72nd hole at Augusta. The two men hugged and Koepka slapped Woods on the back, a moment captured by the CBS cameras.
At the same time, it’s clear that Koepka won’t give up ground to anyone. One of the big narratives going into the Masters was that Koepka felt underappreciated given all his recent successes in the game. On Tuesday, he admitted that he knew a lot of the relative media slighting had to do with Woods’ reemergence, but that he wasn’t above internalizing it to manufacture a healthy-sized chip for his shoulder.
Both Koepka and Woods enter this weekend with a shot to unseat Dustin Johnson as the world’s No. 1. Koepka can do it with a win while Woods needs a win plus a few other circumstances (Johnson finishing out of the top 10 plus Koepka and Justin Rose not finishing second.)
The name of the game, however, is majors, and Koepka made some news on Tuesday by saying he didn’t see why he couldn’t hit a double-digit total for major wins, a territory that’s only currently occupied professionally by Nicklaus (18), Woods (15) and Walter Hagen (11).
What’s more, Koepka said he believes it’s easier to win majors, which is backed up by the fact that three of his five PGA Tour wins are of the big boy variety.
“156 [golfers] in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I'm just going to beat,” Koepka said confidently. “From there, the other — you figure about half of them won't play well from there, so you're down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just — pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you've just got to beat those guys.”
It actually doesn’t sound that hard when Koepka puts it that way.
The only problem is “those guys” now includes Woods returning somewhat close to the form when he was “that guy.”
Then again, Brooks Koepka is damn near close to being “that guy,” too.
Whether they want to call it a rivalry or not, it sure seems like it could end up being one.
And for our benefit, let’s hope it does.
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