A Delightful Glimpse Into Golf’s Secret World of Bitter Feuds

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A Delightful Glimpse Into Golf’s Secret World of Bitter Feuds
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A moment ripe with loathing, shared between two large golfers, interrupts the game’s smooth surface.

A Delightful Glimpse Into Golf’s Secret World of Bitter Feuds
Credit...Photo illustration by Ricardo Santos. Screen grabs from YouTube.

For those of us who follow golf, pleasure rarely comes as pure as it did a few weeks ago, when some golf-world insider leaked an unaired confrontation between the sport’s most notable warring hulks. Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka are the P.G.A.’s No. 5 and No. 8 ranked players, respectively. Both are very beefy and very good — two figures on the leading edge of golf’s turn toward overwhelming power as the tactic of choice — and they have been openly feuding since 2019, when Koepka publicly complained about DeChambeau’s overly deliberate pace of play. Since then the rivals have badgered each other on Twitter to great comic effect, but an in-person confrontation, much longed for by fans, has proved elusive.

Then the moment arrived. Koepka was being interviewed following his Friday round at the P.G.A. Championship at Kiawah Island, providing standard-issue responses to standard-issue questions about course conditions and putting surfaces. Suddenly DeChambeau’s massive figure materialized in frame, ambling behind him. DeChambeau appeared to say something while walking by — we still don’t know what — but his mere presence was enough to render the environment charged with animosity and turn the normally unflappable Koepka’s facial expressions into a symphony of malice. Within seconds, he was so discomposed that he could no longer continue the interview. “I lost my train of thought,” he fumed, and a flurry of expletives ensued. A sketch-comedy program would be hard pressed to conjure a funnier reaction shot than Koepka’s journey from annoyance to exasperation to exhaustion; his eyelids seemed forcibly pulled shut by the sheer magnitude of his disgust.

It’s difficult to describe exactly why this burst of antagonism between large men was so enchanting to golf media. Part of the explanation has to do with the game’s by-design status as the most passive-​aggressive of televised sports. The magisterial slowness of the contest creates a false intimacy among competitors, who are often paired together, moving down the course in a dance as awkward as anything Larry David could concoct. To cover the sport is to know of a nontrivial number of players who wouldn’t cross the street to pour water on a fellow pro who erupted in flames. But owing to golf’s byzantine, Edith-Wharton-style bylaws of decorum, it verges on impossible to get any of them to come out and say this. So they maybe do other things to bug one another, like taking a ludicrous amount of time to line up a two-foot putt, or telling a playing partner “nice shot” after what is objectively a terrible shot, or chewing their granola bars extra loud. Once you’ve seen enough of this hidden needling, open hostility can feel like the ultimate forbidden fruit.

Given that golf news not involving Tiger Woods remains essentially a niche concern, it came as a surprise to see the extent to which Koepka’s interview penetrated mainstream culture. National media reported on the incident with delight, and the clip was viewed millions of times online. Memes cropped up like ragweed. The whole affair even eclipsed the actual victor that week: Phil Mickelson, who at 50 became the oldest player ever to win a major championship. That achievement was, we thought, just about the biggest non-Tiger story the sport could generate. But Koepka’s expression, it seemed, tapped into something universal; his sheer annoyance transcended the game.

A week later, over in the world of tennis, the biggest news of the 2021 French Open also emerged from outside the competition itself. Just before the tournament, the second-seeded Japanese superstar, Naomi Osaka, announced that she was unwilling to attend the event’s mandatory news conferences, citing feelings of depression and anxiety related to those obligations. And when officials pushed back, threatening punitive measures beyond the fines Osaka expected, she called their bluff, withdrawing from the tournament after her first-round victory. Not only did the Open lose an off-court stare-down with one of the sport’s premier attractions, but — in an echo of Mickelson’s win — hardly anyone was paying much attention to what was happening on the court itself. Tournament officials would clearly have preferred for all this to be ironed out behind closed doors, but as Osaka continued to prosecute her case on social media, the story spun further and further from their control.

That’s what happened with the Brooks-Bryson face-off as well. After Koepka’s fusillade of swearing, the Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis, who was conducting the interview, joked that “we’re going to enjoy that in the TV compound later” — suggesting the segment would never make it to air, but would be shared among the media workers who make golf appear so well mannered. To which Koepka replied, “I honestly wouldn’t even care.”

For those used to following rough-and-tumble team sports like football or hockey, it may be difficult to appreciate just how norm-breaking behavior like this can be. Even as the video dominated headlines, the sport’s old guard hastened to downplay it. No less an august figure than Jack Nicklaus dismissed the rivalry as “media driven,” which is true mostly in the sense that Koepka and DeChambeau have indeed repeatedly used the media to express how much they genuinely dislike each other. The sport’s dread of confrontation is built on a century-old anthropologist’s dream of class-driven mores, but if the popular reaction to Koepka’s face in that interview makes one thing clear, it’s that these golfers aren’t the ones acting weird. Golf itself is.

Tennis, too. The French Open officials’ attempts to make Osaka comply with media rules are in some ways understandable: They have commitments to reporters and sponsors, and excusing one player from her obligations while requiring others to fulfill them could, arguably, create a competitive imbalance. (In the kind of development you could hardly make up, the tournament’s 11th-seeded player, Petra Kvitova, soon injured her ankle during a news conference and had to withdraw.) What feels strange is their evident belief that they could prevail at a time when their leverage has never been less in evidence. Osaka made some $50 million last year and first announced her refusal to do press to around 2.4 million followers on Instagram. She’s no great lover of clay courts, and it’s likely her expectations for success at the tournament were modest to begin with. And yet tennis apparatchiks seem to have assumed she would fall in line for the same reason golf ones presumed Koepka’s interview would be quietly passed around a private room: because that’s the done thing.

All this suggests the two sports are having difficulty understanding both their audiences and their athletes. They proceed from the premise that their tissue-thin veneer of high-minded sportsmanship and sometimes incomprehensible notions of etiquette are celebrated attributes, not turnoffs. But evidence suggests the opposite. Fans don’t want pageantry; they want intimacy. Increasingly, the stories that grab the public are those that break up the placid, corporatized surface of the game — a tennis star who chooses self-care over a major, or two large golfers who seem ready to fistfight. We recognize the image-​crafting guardrails that surround every sport, and we perk up when we see them falling. Is this what happens when sports stop being polite and start getting real?