Koepka v DeChambeau: The deliciously petty spat that could save golf

The latest installment in the long-simmering feud between Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau came to pass on Monday night when a leaked snippet from an interview with Koepka at last week’s PGA Championship surfaced and quickly went viral.

In the 45-second clip, Koepka, the famously nonchalant four-time major champion, is starting to respond to an anodyne question from Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis after Friday’s second round before abruptly stopping short. DeChambeau, who’s managed to supplant Patrick Reed as the sport’s biggest heel, ambles first into his eyeline then behind him through the background of the shot, clickety-clacking down the sidewalk in his metal spikes and goofy newsboy cap while yammering away in full throat to his caddy.

Visibly thrown off, Koepka closes his eyes in a moment of deep exasperation, the abyss staring back: “I fucking … I lost my train of thought hearing that bullshit. Fucking Christ.”

Absent any familiarity with the principals, you might think Koepka’s reaction was borne from some grave insult or otherwise juicy backstory. But the tea, to the extent that it exists, is far more banal. By all accounts, the ill will between the two Americans dates back a couple of years to when Koepka made headlines for publicly criticizing DeChambeau’s glacial pace of play. Then in 2020, DeChambeau took a swipe at Koepka’s photo shoot in ESPN’s Body Issue (“He doesn’t have any abs, to be honest. I got some abs!”), prompting Koepka to respond with a picture on Twitter of his four major championship trophies (“You were right @b_dechambeau I am 2 short of a 6 pack!”).

As tinder for antipathy goes, it’s not exactly Ali calling Frazier an Uncle Tom. Yet the clip, precisely because of its mundanity and not in spite of it, puts a fine point on just why golf rivalries can be so entertaining.

For starters, hostilities between individuals are nearly always superior to those between teams. Magic v Bird, Lauda v Hunt, Borg v McEnroe, et countless al – each lends itself to bottomless consumption by way of barroom debate and pop-psychological analysis in ways that, say, Yankees v Red Sox never can.

Then there’s the sport itself. Golf is such a frustrating, difficult trade that any average fan can identify with cracks in the veneer when they reveal themselves. But the relatability only starts there. Consider that, in nearly all other sports, the uncodified rituals of conflict resolution are for the most part immediate and efficient: whether it’s a spot of chin music, a forearm shiver in the paint, or a seconds-late hit on the quarterback. Only weeks ago, the lingering bad blood between the NHL’s New York Rangers and Washington Capitals boiled over with the teams dropping their gloves for a full-ice melee … on the opening draw. Even the tension of the ceremonial boxing staredown is but a prelude to, and a promise of, the violence afoot.

Golf offers no such catharsis, and golfers, bound as they are by decorum, are left to the same passive-aggressive eye-rolling over day-to-day microaggressions as the rest of us. No matter how much Ken from corporate accounts might deserve a studs-up challenge in the break room, the social contract generally forbids it.

And let’s be honest: While a disproportionate number of the world’s greatest athletes are borne from extreme poverty, it’s hardly a secret that golf tends to draw its recruits from a, shall we say, specific crust of society. As such, there is a certain demented pleasure, for some fans at least, in the debasing spectacle of privileged white dudes engaging in petty spats. The silly clothes they’re wearing as it all plays out are merely the icing on the cake.

And with golf’s biggest draw, Tiger Woods, sidelined perhaps indefinitely, storylines like these are desperately needed as the sport tries to engage newer and younger fans. Which makes the decision to remove the clip from Twitter, whether by one of the players involved or the PGA Tour itself, all the more mystifying if not downright negligent.

But the internet never forgets. Koepka v DeChambeau may have a ways to go before approaching the realm of Palmer v Nicklaus, Faldo v Norman, Tiger v Phil or Sorenstam v Webb. But all of a sudden the prospect of these two in the final pairing on Sunday at Torrey Pines in three weeks’ time is top of any golf fan’s wish list.