Golf prides itself on its dedication to decorum, to protocol, to unquestioning obedience to traditions laid down before any of us were born. So whenever anyone comes along to flaunt those traditions—whether we’re talking skin color or pants color—it’s always a good time watching the game’s stewards twist themselves into knots over the beer can that’s been thrown into their Rae’s Creek.
But what happens when the guy flaunting one of golf’s traditions happens to be beating the hell out of everyone at the same time? Joyous anarchy, that’s what. We saw it with Tiger Woods 20 years ago, and we’re seeing it now with Brooks Koepka in 2019.
Koepka’s latest transgression: trash talk. Sure, every champion golfer believes they’re the best in the world — that’s part of what makes you the best — but Koepka actually comes right out and says it.
Asked this week about his “rivalry” with Rory McIlroy, Koepka threw down a sledgehammer
“I've been out here for, what, five years. Rory hasn't won a major since I've been on the PGA Tour,” Koepka told AFP prior to the CJ Cup @ Nine Bridges, where Koepka is defending his title. “So I just don't view it as a rivalry.”
Hey, it ain’t bragging if you’re telling the truth.
Koepka and McIlroy both have four majors; Koepka’s got two pair of U.S. Opens and PGA Championships since 2017, while McIlroy is one Masters short of a full house, with two PGAs … none of any kind since 2014.
That’s some strong smoke, but Koepka wasn’t done dancing on the ashes. “I'm No. 1 in the world,” he said. “I've got open road in front of me. I'm not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don't see it as a rivalry.”
With all due respect to the starched patrician traditions of golf, this is exactly what this sport needs: a guy who pulls golf out of the country club and more into … well, not the wrestling ring, exactly, but more into the real world. Of course Koepka wants to set up a country club inside McIlroy’s head. And, one would hope, McIlroy’s going to burn it all down and bring the fight back to Koepka’s door.
He’s in for a challenge. Much like other world-class athletes, Koepka thrives on the doubt of others. More to the point, he lives for proving people wrong. He carries chips on his shoulder the size of the Himalayas, and he’s still managed to contend in pretty much every single major of the last three years.
It’s a remarkably agile philosophy he’s got going here: if he gets praise, he brushes it off, saying he’s just interested in winning majors. If he doesn’t get praise, he just throws that on the pile of perceived injustices. Either way, he sets up his own head for victory.
Jack Nicklaus used to say that he could tell on the first tee whether his opponent could handle the stress of the day’s match. Koepka is taking that a step further: he’s convinced he can win every time he tees it up, regardless of who’s in his pairing.
Koepka’s also crafting a career arc unlike anyone in the history of the game before him: all killer, no filler. He plays in a range of tournaments, sure, but he lives for the majors. He’s like the New England Patriots — who cares how many AFC East honors or conference titles they win? It’s all about the rings.
So far, it’s worked flawlessly on the course: eight top-6 finishes in the last 10 majors he’s played. This isn’t the way to win Player of the Year honors—McIlroy won that in 2019 despite not winning a single major this year—but Koepka said earlier this month that those kinds of baubles don’t drive him.
“I don't play for awards, I play to win. To win trophies, to win tournaments,” he said, and the fact McIlroy won surely played into these most recent comments. “I think everyone in the room knows LeBron James has only won four MVPs, but I'm pretty sure he's been the best player for more than four years.”
McIlroy can stack all the Tour Championships and Players Championships and Player of the Year awards he likes, but he, Koepka and everyone else knows the truth: golf careers are judged by majors, and everything else is a distant second. By that standard, Koepka is running the table.
Koepka throwing heat is the kind of jolt golf needs, no matter how much it unsettles the game’s more proper segments. Until the sport’s powers-that-be allow players to start swinging drivers at each other—and we’d still bet on Koepka if that happened—a little anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better works just fine.
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