It might require a Brinks truck to deliver all the humble pie that Brooks Koepka will be told to eat in the coming days, but thems the risks when you’re one of the few guys in golf willing to open your mouth and hazard being served life’s least appetizing dessert.
The four-time major winner violated one of the game’s cardinal conventions at the PGA Championship: that the first shot among leaders entering the final round takes place on the first tee Sunday afternoon, not Saturday night in front of a microphone. After the third round at TPC Harding Park, the two-time defending champion stood a couple strokes adrift of his one-time friend, Dustin Johnson.
“I like my chances,” Koepka said. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know, only won one.”
As prodding goes, it had all the subtlety and affection of the dental scene in Marathon Man.
Koepka has long been an enthusiastic practitioner of the dark art of psych ops, and generous in his targeting. While Tiger Woods treated opponents with an icy aloofness, barely acknowledging their existence at times, Koepka pokes around in search of a frailty, preferably one that manifests itself in an agitated mind under pressure on a Sunday afternoon. His instruments of choice are press conferences and social media posts, but these are not throwaway comments or tweets. Nothing that exits Koepka’s mouth — not one syllable — isn’t premeditated.
Mind games are as much a weapon in Koepka’s arsenal as his driver, and that isn’t necessarily as popular among his peers as it is among golf fans who crave a little conflict, and reporters thirsty for a good quote.
Rory McIlroy has been a past target of needling by Koepka, who he ousted as world No. 1 earlier this year. He was asked about Koepka’s comments on Johnson after the final round in San Francisco. “It’s a very different mentality to bring to golf that I don’t think a lot of golfers have,” he said with admirable understatement. “I certainly try to respect everyone out here. Everyone is a great player. If you’ve won a major championship, you’re a hell of a player. Doesn’t mean you’ve only won one; you’ve won one, and you’ve had to do a lot of good things to do that.”
McIlroy then threw out another number: “Sort of hard to knock a guy that’s got 21 wins on the PGA Tour, which is three times what Brooks has.”
Even Koepka might doff his cap to that surgical drone strike by McIlroy.
Evident in this brouhaha among the bros is the assumption that Koepka’s comments were designed solely to rattle Johnson rather than to rouse himself. Koepka knew his Dustin drive-by would increase enormously the pressure on him to deliver in the final round, but he was willing to assume the risk of embarrassment — and virtual execution by the ever-alert Twitter firing squad — to motivate himself to excel. It was a fraught strategy for a man already facing substantial expectations in his bid for a third straight win in this event, even if he hadn’t been aiming the barb at a former world No. 1 who won on Tour a few weeks back.
That he was game for the gamble should earn him kudos. But the fact that Koepka didn’t deliver on the golf course — a miserable front nine on the way to a 74 ensured that kid with the financial advisor mom in the AIG ad got more screen time than he did — won’t encourage others to imitate his aggressive gamesmanship. Which is a shame. Verbal pugilism is part of the foreplay of every prizefight, and golf would benefit from both tolerating and encouraging a little more sass among competitors.
Sure, mouthiness will grate on fans of golf’s decorous behavioral code, but it will also engage those inclined to lazily dismiss the game as an antiquated hobby ill-suited to the combative vibe of modern sport.
Golf is enjoying a window in which it dominates the sports landscape for lack of alternatives, but relying on other leagues being locked down and prime-time finishes on the East Coast are short-term strategies for success. Freeing up players to exhibit more personality and attitude — even if we don’t much care for either — is necessary too. This is not the time to dust off Emily Post’s Etiquette for a stern lecture to those who step outside the lines drawn by Old Tom Morris more than 150 years ago.
Koepka will swallow his humble pie, but don’t expect him to hold his tongue in the future. And nor should he. There were plenty of fans eager to see if he could back up his swagger on Sunday, and a few hoping to see him humbled. Golf needs both constituencies, and it needs polarizing players like Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau who are not only willing to fuel those fans but to accept the shellacking when they come up short.
And for all the hooting, hollering and pearl-clutching, Dustin Johnson still has one major and Brooks Koepka still has four. Neither man won on Sunday, but neither leaves town a loser either.