Is the Koepka-De Chambeau rivalry all it seems to be?

Sincere edge between the two Americans could prove lucrative for golf and the PGA

Brooks Koepka’s rivalry with Bryson DeChambeau will be a hot topic at this week’s US Open. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty

Brooks Koepka’s rivalry with Bryson DeChambeau will be a hot topic at this week’s US Open. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty

 

Only something as tight-arsed as golf could get into such a flap about two players not liking each other.

Even those who couldn’t care less about the game can hardly be oblivious to how Bryson De Chambeau got on Brooks Keopka’s nerves so much when he was doing an interview at last month’s US PGA that the latter dropped a couple of ‘F’ bombs in frustration.

No harm, no foul since the interview wasn’t live: just roll again and trot out stuff about green-speed and staying positive. Except a mischievous and perhaps even strategic gremlin ensured ‘Take 1’ somehow got out. So cue a lot of sanctimonious pearl-clutching.

That golf is a famously profane exercise can be no surprise to anyone. Every club hack knows getting a small ball into a small hole in a big field can be an infuriating exercise. Doing it for a living makes maddened profanity all but inevitable.

But decorum used to mean no potty talk in public and no visible personality clashes.

Instead a thin veneer of desperate civility has always been applied to the professional game’s exterior walls with squabbles resolutely kept in-house.

Nobody but everybody knew Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson hated each other’s guts, or that Nick Faldo was as popular as haemorrhoids among his peers. However no one let the side down by actually saying so.

It’s in that context that Koepka’s otherwise unremarkable outburst gained such public traction. The response to such a rare glimpse behind the bland curtain is proportionate to how uptight the public face of golf has always been. Novelty made it noteworthy.

Apparently there had been form already between the two men in the antipathy stakes which always helps too.

Personal animosity

Koepka’s criticism of his rival’s slow play prompted De Chambeau to make some mature remarks about having more muscles than his Ryder Cup colleague. It was hardly Wildean in its wit but at least smacked of the real thing about two people simply rubbing each other up the wrong way.

If hardly in the same league as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors always on the verge of a tear-up, or other famous personal rivalries such as Ali-Frazier, there did briefly look to be a genuine personal animosity at the top of golf, something guaranteed to resonate with anyone in any workplace.

Rory McIlroy got it, messaging Koepka about the spat being the best thing ever and how it’s good for players to show “personality.”Which is correct, if the mutual loathing is genuine. But with its sure-fire instinct for missing the beat golf looks to have blown it.

Maybe the novelty was too much too soon. Maybe the reflex to corporatize everything was impossible to ignore. But it looks like a little hint of realistic bone fide needle has got turned into just more ‘morkoting.’

It’s way too cosy to fully believe. Instead it looks more like a single sincere expression of disdain is being manipulated into an artificial media storm with the cold-eyed purpose of boosting the sport’s profile.

A PGA eager to make an impression on a new generation of fans/consumers might make tut-tut noises about swearing. But privately it must be exultant at the reach this stupid little spat has achieved.

The run-in to Thursday’s start of the US Open probably won’t be dominated by Phil Mickleson - who turns 51 the day before - and his unlikely shot at a career Grand Slam but rather two comparative youngsters making faces at each other on Twitter.

What’s important to keep in mind here is that the PGA has budgeted for this kind of stuff.

The month before Koepka’s outburst it announced its Player Impact Program. This is a $40 million bonus pool to compensate players who take the trouble to boost publicity and draw eyes to the sport. And there’s nothing like a fight to grab attention.

Crucially, this pool is being distributed to just 10 players. They will be chosen by metrics involving popularity in ‘Google’ search, how players deliver to sponsors in terms of exposure, and value of engagement on social and digital channels.

Since the best players get all the attention anyway this looks a great deal if you’re in the Top 10 or just outside it. Even better, the player who is considered the ‘MVP’ in this commercial barn-dance gets a cool $8 million for himself at the end of the year.

That’s almost four times the winner’s purse in Torrey Pines this week, a sum well worth joining the corporate PR racket for, and certainly a nice potential earner for some already wealthy players.

Bulls**t game

Once known as a rather taciturn individual, Koepka appears to have taken to playing the bulls**t game like a virtuoso, proclaiming it all good for keeping golf to the forefront of a jaded public’s paltry attention span. He’s not wrong either.

When the pairings are announced for the first two rounds this week there’s likely to be a digital rush to see if the ‘enemies’ will be paired together.

There’s no way around scores so the odds on the marketer’s dream of a final day Major head-to-head are long. But the chances of being paired at the outset must be no more than perhaps a tape of a fluffed TV take mysteriously going astray. Who knows, the internet might break if it happens.

A touch of animosity can be gold in sport. After Keane and Vieira had a pop in the Highbury tunnel, no one took their eyes off the game. Serena and Sharapova mightn’t have been much of a competitive rivalry but it didn’t prevent there being real venom to their shots to each other.

In comparison, Koepka and De Chambeau looks like ersatz aggro.

It was a minor tiff with shock value only for those eager to be shocked. Now it looks little more than an arch attempt to hustle the gullible with ‘content’ suggesting golf mightn’t be such a constipated sport after all.

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