• Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

DeChambeau vs. Koepka: Can ‘The Match’ turn a personality conflict into an iconic rivalry?

·7 min read
In this article:
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.
  • Oops!
    Something went wrong.
    Please try again later.

Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka are taking their ongoing workplace disagreement nationwide this weekend, when the latest iteration of "The Match" airs live on Friday at 4 p.m. Eastern. It’ll be less “Duel in the Sun” and more “pro wrestling with table manners,” but either way, it’ll be the latest generation’s attempt to pump a little liveliness into a sport that all too often lacks a sense of humor about itself.

There’s an old line about how the best thing NFL football has going for it is NFL football. In other words, all the off-field machinations, offseason crime, insidious allegations and front-office mismanagement melt away at the kickoff. The game itself is so compelling that it needs no sugary promotion, no forced drama.

That’s literally the exact opposite case for every other sport, which must rely on a combination of highlights, narratives and made-for-TV spectacle to capture attention in a deeply fragmented media environment. It’s how you get NBA fans who never watch an actual NBA game, how you snare college basketball viewers who don’t watch a dribble until March … and how you capture golf fans who tune out between the summer’s last major Sunday and the first week of April. Hence, the match — sorry, Capital One’s The Match Featuring Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau on the Turner Family of Networks.

Thanksgiving weekend is traditionally fertile territory for golf fans, dating back to when Dad was off from work for the weekend and wanted to watch a little golf, kids be damned. From 1983 to 2008, golf fans could watch stalwarts like Jack Nicklaus and Fred Couples trundle around some sun-splashed course, smacking drives and curling putts on The Skins Game.

Seriously, is there anything that screams “Dad Life” more than this:

(For the record, although unrelated: Fuzzy Zoeller is younger in that clip than Dustin Johnson is now.)

The original Skins Game fizzled out due to declining interest on the part of both players and fans. Brought back a decade later as The Match with Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, the event is now a celebrity-stuffed fiesta that veers far more toward awkwardness than brilliance … but, much like turkey in the fridge on Friday, it’s what’s there, so why not dive in?

This year’s model features golf’s reigning “rivalry,” which is a low bar to clear in the we’re-all-civilized-folk game of golf. Koepka and DeChambeau have had beef, or what passes for it in golf, for more than two years, after some feuding over slow play, some accusations that apologies weren’t sufficiently humble, some eye-rolling on camera, and some whipped-up galleries. Despite a forced hug at the Ryder Cup, the loathing these two have for each other is genuine, in a way that’s more uncomfortable than entertaining.

“It’s disgusting the way the guy has tried to knock me down,” DeChambeau said Monday on a conference call promoting the event. “There’s no need for it in the game of golf. He’s just tried to knock me down in every angle, every avenue and every way. For what reason? I don’t know.”

“I don’t hit him up every day and my phone isn’t blowing up,” said Koepka on a separate call, “so you can do the math.”

The Match is going to be 12 holes of galaxy-level golf. The problem isn’t the shotmaking. It’s what happens in between the shots. Pros aren’t mic’ed up as they make the turn at Augusta National or stand on the No. 7 tee at Pebble Beach. The drama comes from watching what they do, not what they say. In a Manningcast world, there’s a tendency to believe that every athlete is a fountain of wit and wisdom; the truth is, uh, somewhat different.

With the notable exception of Phil Mickelson, few golfers — hell, few athletes in general — have the quick wit and nimble reaction time necessary to make for good television. “You suck” / “No, you suck” isn’t all that riveting when you know neither of these guys is going to wrap his five-iron around the other guy’s neck.

Plus, let’s be honest here: The dispute between Koepka and DeChambeau is a workplace disagreement roughly on the level of the hatred you have for that guy who steals your food out of the office fridge or doesn’t refill the breakroom coffee maker (back when you used to go to the office, of course). Nobody stole anybody’s significant other or swindled anyone out of millions; these two haven’t ever even fought for the same major late on a Sunday afternoon. These guys just don’t like each other’s personalities, which is fine and normal but not exactly the stuff of timeless rivalries.

Unlike, say, Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth, Koepka and DeChambeau haven’t inspired galleries to root specifically for them. You can admire DeChambeau’s moon-shot drives and willingness to embrace change, you can appreciate Koepka’s Terminator willpower and flair for coming up big in big moments. But as talented as they’ve been — together they’ve won almost a third of the majors since 2017 — neither has yet achieved that kind of deep connection with the golf audience that turns stars into legends.

Some of that’s just a result of their demeanors. DeChambeau’s wide-eyed geekery and newfound bluster splashes up against Koepka’s dismissive “whatever, bro” chill, and neither one wields the kind of can-you-believe-this-guy sympathy that gets a gallery on their side. The crew most likely to boo DeChambeau is the galleries-are-for-the-boys bro contingent, and they’ll boo anything they’re told to. The fans most likely to boo Koepka are the ones for whom memories of their own locker-stuffing Koepkas from high school are still fresh. The result is something like a presidential election, where everyone’s just rooting for the other guy to lose.

Part of the issue here too is that you can’t just graft MMA-style attitude onto golf without it looking a little … well, silly. At least in MMA, you know the fighter standing across the cage from you is planning on causing you significant immediate physical trauma. In The Match, all that’s at risk is pride and dignity — and in golf, you can sacrifice a whole lot of yours trying to tear down your opponent’s.

So, should you watch The Match? Absolutely. These are two of the best players on the planet right now, and each of them has a fascinating career arc completely independent of the other. Koepka is fighting his way back from injury, hoping to return to the form that thoroughly dominated golf for three seasons in the late 2010s. DeChambeau is a walking science experiment, looking to find the edge of human performance on the golf course. Their “rivalry” is far less interesting than either of their individual stories.

The Match will feature the usual TNT cast of characters — Ernie Johnson, Charles Barkley et al. — and a whole range of charitable donation opportunities. For that alone, this is a worthwhile way to kick back with some leftovers.

For the astute golf fan, though, this will be an interesting look at how these two behemoths position themselves for the 2022 season. Because after all the bluster and attitude, all the hype and passive-aggressive jabbing ... winning majors remains the best revenge.

They were all smiles at the Ryder Cup, but Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka don't like each other. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
They were all smiles at the Ryder Cup, but Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka don't like each other. (Andrew Redington/Getty Images)

_____

Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at jay.busbee@yahoo.com.