Tipping Point: Brooks Koepka rivalry could rekindle Rory McIlroy’s fire

If McIlroy can respond in 2020 then ‘Brory’ could become one of the truly great rivalries

Brooks Koepka has suggested there is no rivalry between him and Rory McIlroy. Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty

Brooks Koepka has suggested there is no rivalry between him and Rory McIlroy. Photograph: Streeter Lecka/Getty

 

Golf should be grateful to Brooks Koepka for daring to peep out from underneath its demure skirts and flaunt some good old fashioned sporting needle. Ultimately no one might wind up more grateful than Rory McIlroy.

The Irishman was in Koepka’s firing line last week when the world’s No. 1 ranked player swatted away talk of rivalry between the two.

“I’ve been out here for, what, five years: Rory hasn’t won a Major since I’ve been on the PGA tour. So I just don’t view it as a rivalry,” he declared.

As a statement of defiance it managed to be both gloriously haughty and suspiciously chippy.

Koepka has become golf’s supreme competitor, the winner of four Major titles in the last three years, and runner-up in another. In contrast, the last of McIlroy’s four Majors was in 2014.

So technically Koepka has a point. Except he hasn’t, since everyone knows there is a rivalry, especially now the American has made a point of insisting there isn’t.

Why he did so isn’t clear although it’s hard not to suspect at least some of it might be rooted in resentment.

Brooks Koepka with the Wanamaker Trophy after his 2019 US PGA victory. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty
Brooks Koepka with the Wanamaker Trophy after his 2019 US PGA victory. Photograph: Ross Kinnaird/Getty

It must grate any No. 1 to lag behind the No. 2 in terms of profile. Attention is a pain in the ass sometimes but the endorsement money that comes with it isn’t and McIlroy remains the commercial blue-eyed boy. Then again it might come down to a simple desire for recognition.

Whatever the reason Koepka’s readiness to call it as he sees it is a refreshing change. Such piss and vinegar is grist to the mill in other sports. But golf’s pursed-lipped reaction to such swagger is invariably tut-tut restraint.

Sure enough Koepka has been accused of being disrespectful, even making himself a hostage to fortune in terms of his mouth writing cheques his results must cash. McIlroy himself has played the golf game perfectly by publicly responding with impeccable reasonableness.

For everyone’s sake though, perhaps most especially his own, the hope must be that inside he’s riled.

Sure it’s throwback stuff but no less enthralling for that. No knowledge of golf is required to recognise a challenge being thrown down and Koepka has clearly decided decorum is dead. For that alone the powers that be should give him a reassuring hug and urge him to stick with the strut.

The wider public can engage with this, even those of us who caricature golf as a haven for mostly middle management males regressing to their school days by paying for the privilege of being told what to wear, where to go and at what time.

Rivalries are gold-dust for any sport. Think Coe-Ovett in athletics or Ali-Frazier in boxing; opposite personalities and styles fuelled by that crucial dollop of grudge. It’s irresistible whatever the circumstances.

Modern golf is built on the renowned rivalry between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus in the 1960s. Cocky Arnie, the popular champ, up against a rising star who’s long since been deified but at the time was simply ‘Fat Jack.’ TV audiences boomed as a result.

The game hasn’t had anything to really compare since. Faldo-Norman had a touch of it, especially down the stretch of that 1996 Masters. Woods-Mickelson had plenty of grudge but was too one-sided to really count. And any actual hostility was restrained.

A lot of effort went into promoting McIlroy and Jordan Speith as golf’s next big thing. It never felt convincing though, certainly not enough to provoke McIlroy out of his dry-spell in the Majors. And it was conducted with impeccable moderation.

Koepka however seems to be a very different beast. Far from inadvertently making himself a hostage to fortune, his comments about McIlroy seem a calculated attempt to generate the type of rancour that the evidence of the last five years suggests he thrives on.

“Sometimes your haters are your biggest motivators,” Koepka once said, which sounds a bit ‘bumper-sticker’ but taps into a personality that relishes being just that little bit different to his competitors.

“I’m not a big golf nerd. Golf is kind of boring, not much action,” he once declared.

Roger Federer congratulates Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard’s Wimbledon victory in 2008. Photograph: Inpho
Roger Federer congratulates Rafael Nadal after the Spaniard’s Wimbledon victory in 2008. Photograph: Inpho

This is an American who chose to cut his teeth on the European Challenge Tour, playing in the golf heartlands of Finland and Kazakhstan. He thinks soccer is ‘proper’ football, maintains an intimidating detachment to other players and is the very last hard-minded competitor you want on your tail down the stretch.

Koepka may not always beat you but he never beats himself.

His is a hard-assed, scrapper style which is at odds with the sublime natural skills McIlroy has been blessed with. The Irishman’s A+ game remains a thing of beauty. But Koepka’s B game is dominant right now and he knows it. What we don’t know is how his supposed non-rival will respond in 2020.

In some ways it has the potential to mirror perhaps the greatest rivalry sport has ever known, the epic ‘Fedal’ between Roger Federer and Rafa Nadal that has dominated tennis for over a dozen years and shows no sign of stopping.

In one corner a supremely elegant natural talent and in the other a grinding remorseless force of nature. Technically that’s a simplistic portrayal but the straightforward pay-off has been a world enraptured by two supreme sporting stars regularly squaring off.

That we’re still enthralled has much to do with Federer’s response to Nadal. At one point he looked to have been usurped for good. But pride and a depth of resolve at odds with the refined image roused him to once again turn it into a real rivalry of equals.

That’s McIlroy’s challenge. The suspicion has been of a player in cruise control. Koepka, who cuts an attractive maverick figure by golf standards, has put it up to him. The consequence could be just what the game needs, a rivalry to fascinate everyone.

With luck it might even become golf’s very own ‘Brory.’

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