Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka at the Ryder Cup opening ceremony
It’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment when Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka’s feud took a terminal lurch into manufactured mediocrity. After all, there remains a healthy contingent who still believe the pair’s banal bickering has been contrived from the outset; a plague of corniness set in motion by the PGA Tour’s promise to reward players for their social media footprint. But in the heat of the BMW Championship, when DeChambeau confronted and swore at a taunting spectator, there appeared to be at least a whiff of smoke. And after the PGA Tour itself threatened to throw fans out who shouted “Brooksie” in DeChambeau’s direction, there was clearly a need for genuine intervention.
The feud provided the perfect Ryder Cup fodder last September, a streak of dislike that might yet disrupt a vastly superior American team and tilt the scales. Duly, the pair’s every action was trained by a horde of cameras in Wisconsin; their aloof body language scrutinised at length; the supposed acrimony accelerated by joking teammates. But of course, any material impact was as surface level as the arguing itself. Koepka and DeChambeau both won their singles matches on the final day and celebrated the US’ landslide victory with a hug, albeit one that hardly required a prying eye to ascertain its awkwardness.
The latest resuscitation of their synthetic saga lands in Las Vegas on Friday. The pair will play a 12-hole exhibition match at Wynn Golf Club. Phil Mickelson, the goofy father figure of Team USA, will goad the players’ via earpieces. Odds will tumbledown the screen in avalanches. Their lukewarm trash-talking has been reprised, but in reality that the match is even taking place is the clearest evidence that no true ill-feeling remains. Koepka and DeChambeau are going to earn a small fortune by winding each other up over the course of a truncated round. It’s a profitable pantomime.
“I think I’ve said it like 10 different times, I mean, I’ve never really liked him,” said Koepka, who is playing the de facto villain. DeChambeau, though, for all his dreams, might not have realised that there’s no hero in this play either. “[The hug] was definitely forced,” came his cringing response. “He can continue to try to bully me… [but] it’s disgusting the way the guy has tried to knock me down – there’s no need for it in the game of golf.”
The saviours of the sport they certainly are not, and some will be quick to castigate Koepka and DeChambeau. On the one hand, yes, it is a brazenly cynical and self-serving venture. But there is little merit to suggestions that it is any disgrace. Golf has never been governed by a moral compass, not when it accepted the riches of apartheid South Africa then or Saudi Arabia now. It doesn’t make this exhibition right, and it remains a naked vehicle for gambling, but it is hardly an existential evil either. Golf can attempt to take a high ground and pretend it’s above such antics, but that theory doesn’t have much of a leg to stand on.
What little can be gleaned from the spectacle then is, perhaps, the ease and readiness with which almost any feeling is now seized on and sold. There are the sporadic moments that make sport so exhilarating, like Rory McIlroy’s tears at the Ryder Cup or his furious shirt-ripping after losing out in Dubai last week. But before long, emotions are churned into currency – ones that are worth $50m (£38m) to the PGA Tour.
So when DeChambeau and Koepa’s dislike peaked in the summer, the corporate machine sputtered into life and worked out a plan to turn it into profit. It’s boxing’s oldest script but a phenomenon that remains somewhat new to golf, where rivalries were played out in front of a silent audience rather than to a social media frenzy. It’s not so much a shift within golf as a reflection of the world we live in. Saturated minds are driven by an insatiable appetite for content. The more unfamiliar or bizarre it becomes – DeChambeau hitting drives off the Wynn’s roof onto a target of Koepka’s face springs to mind – the better it can pierce attention and be consumed. It’s simply, and regrettably, the direction of travel. Golf has hopped on for the ride.
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