Golf is not set up for rivalries because every golfer, first and foremost, hates themselves. If, like me, you have uncharacteristic nerves on the first tee that make your hands shake, or a slice into the woods you can set your watch by when you absolutely must hit a fairway, you cannot fathom ever having the time or energy to hate anyone else on a golf course. You are your own biggest rival. You are the one you curse under your breath when you shank an easy 7-iron. Golfers have seen the enemy and it is us.
There are a number of obstacles preventing true rivalries from developing on the PGA Tour. To mention two, there’s the long-standing etiquette of the game, which dulls any potential flare-up, and the fact that on a major championship Sunday, it’s rare for two stars to go head-to-head for a title.
The first thing you need to know about the feud between Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka is that it is aggressively modern. It is fueled by two players who typify the game as it is currently played—each player relies on strength, distance, and a disciplined workout regimen—and its animosity can be stoked on any social media platform in existence. I will get to the history of the friction between the two in a second, but it is important to point out that the sheer ridiculousness of it all can be summed up by telling you about an incident last month, when Koepka quote tweeted a pro-Koepka, piano-driven parody song about the feud set to the tune of “As Long As You Love Me” by the Backstreet Boys with the summation: “It’s a hit.” The song features such lines as “one of us is going down in history, the other belongs in a lab.” The fact that this line is perfectly clear says a lot about the roles each golfer plays. There has never been a golf feud like this one. It feels vaguely like a Will Ferrell movie.
DeChambeau and Koepka are two of the best golfers on the planet. They have combined to win three of the past four U.S. Opens, the tournament that is taking place this week at Torrey Pines in San Diego. Like Steph Curry or Lamar Jackson, they are elite players who also signal a sea change in the way their game is played. The duo have the exact same odds this week—18-1, tied for third best behind Jon Rahm and Dustin Johnson. Koepka and DeChambeau’s rivalry will matter at any major they both enter, but doubly so at the U.S. Open, a tournament whose setup always favors long hitters. DeChambeau is the top golfer driving the ball, both by distance and by strokes gained. He leads the PGA Tour in best ball striking from 200 yards out or more. There are a handful of metrics that point to his dominance at such a long course as Torrey Pines. Koepka lags behind DeChambeau in these metrics, but he closes the gap among golf fans by being a swaggering badass with a supernatural gift to find his best golf at the major championships. Both Koepka and DeChambeau can win this tournament. In fact, a player with their style of play should win it. They are perfect enemies at the perfect time. It’s a hit.
The most recent leg of their rivalry—and the most significant—started last month, when a leaked video emerged on Twitter that showed an outtake of a Koepka interview with Golf Channel. As Koepka notices DeChambeau walking behind him, he rolls his eyes and admits to losing his train of thought. The notable thing here is that Koepka is not angry at DeChambeau; his reaction more closely resembles general annoyance. As DeChambeau stomped past him in metal spikes, Koepka made the same face you make when your Wi-Fi is slow for a few minutes or an Uber driver keeps canceling on you. The video was removed, but it was memed until it had a firm place in the national consciousness and was shared by Tom Brady. (Another shot in this feud involved Koepka tweeting “sorry bro” at Aaron Rodgers when it was announced DeChambeau would be paired with the Green Bay quarterback in an exhibition match against Brady and Phil Mickelson. Again, this is a very strange feud.)
Golf Digest’s Shane Ryan helpfully compiled the top feuds in golf history and most of them revolve around short-term grievances: flare-ups between Ryder Cup captains and players, for instance, or one-off cheating accusations that were eventually resolved. Even when two big names truly don’t like each other—Arnold Palmer and Ben Hogan are a good example—the animosity tends to stay at a low boil. Golf’s self-imposed etiquette turns most feuds into cold wars. Tiger Woods never really goes out of his way to feed the content machine when he probably actively dislikes a guy, such as Sergio Garcia. Woods said of Phil Mickelson, his longtime perceived rival, “we’ve been friends for a very long time.” More obscure players have truly hated each other, but it’s never risen to a level of national significance.
Koepka and DeChambeau are, obviously, different. It would take about 30 minutes to explain their relationship to a friend coming to it cold. The short version is that the feud has been simmering for years—Koepka has needled DeChambeau for wanting to move his ball due to ants, and he seemed to accuse DeChambeau of using performance-enhancing drugs via a Kenny Powers GIF joke. During a debate over DeChambeau’s perceived slow play two years ago, DeChambeau said Koepka should say something to his face. Koepka promptly did that. DeChambeau admitted Koepka would “kick my ass” and Koepka heartily agreed.
There will probably be a B.C. and A.D. of the rivalry, divided by last month’s video of Koepka rolling his eyes. A few weeks after it leaked, Koepka fans started calling DeChambeau “Brooksy,” which isn’t really even Koepka’s nickname. DeChambeau said “Whoever is calling me Brooksy needs to get out of here.” Eventually 10 fans (some egged on by Pardon My Take) were ejected from the Memorial Tournament. (DeChambeau said in response that the ejections were up to the officers on-site and has thus far refused to engage with the Koepka feud in the media.) Koepka, who was not playing the tournament where the ejections took place, made a Twitter video:
Yes, this golf rivalry is different. It is on social media. It is branded. It is monetized. It is modern golf and it is wonderful.
In April, the PGA Tour said it would start awarding $40 million per year spread out among 10 players who are boosting the popularity of the game, using a series of metrics to gauge popularity. It’s called the “PIP”—the Player Impact Program—and it will change golf. The move will probably help funnel money to the best players in the sport, something that will help fend off potential competition from rival golf leagues that hope to woo big names with guaranteed money. This announcement also turned Koepka into the John Wick of random social media potshots—he will not be denied this pot of gold, slamming the door shut on the competition as if it were a major golf tournament. DeChambeau himself is a content lord, just a different type. This week he released a 45-minute video that Golf Digest said is a convoluted tour of his health plan, focusing on phrases such as “prostaglandins” and “modality.” In the past year, DeChambeau has released videos of himself riding around in a private jet and trying to increase his ball speed while a Kings of Leon track blares in the background. I’ve come to appreciate DeChambeau as the best type of golf goofball. He lacks all self-awareness, while Koepka has all of it. It’s easier to be Bryson than Brooks—Bryson has spent the past two years being weird and gaining weight, which is a pretty common experience. (Bryson, it should be noted, is doing it on purpose to help his game.) Brooks does GQ shoots, Bryson wears a Ben Hogan–style newsboy cap that no one in his life has told him he can’t pull off. We’ve all been there. Last fall, I described DeChambeau as having the drives of Happy Gilmore and the vibes of Shooter McGavin and he’s done absolutely nothing to dispel that characterization:
Koepka has not found the same appreciation for DeChambeau as I have.
Now, it is great entertainment that this feud is happening. What happens next is the important part. The Koepka-DeChambeau rivalry does not have to mean anything in and of itself. Sometimes people don’t like each other. Whether it gets resolved or explodes further is sort of beside the point. The function of the feud in the macro sense is to see how the sport of golf will react to such a tension.
Earlier this year, Netflix released the third season of Formula 1: Drive to Survive, a docuseries about the lives of the teams and drivers in Formula 1. The show is a phenomenon in the United States. Our own Ryen Russillo is obsessed. My Ringer NFL Show cohost Nora Princiotti called me last month to tell me she’s all in. Red Bull team principal Christian Horner recently appeared on Pardon My Take. F1 ratings on ESPN have exploded. One of the top golf podcasts on the planet, No Laying Up, has devoted an entire segment to races in the past few years. The story lines of the show tell the reality of sports: There is immense pressure on athletes and sometimes they don’t like one another. Sometimes they are annoyed at one another for reasons big and small. They travel the world, make millions of dollars, live perfect lives, and just hate dudes. Golf has run from that story in the past. Golf, of course, is significantly more popular in America than Formula 1, but I’m using it as a guidepost for how a sport can grow. Formula 1 has decided to tell the story about the elephant in the room. Golf has decided to pretend neither the elephants nor the rooms really exist. ESPN’s Kevin Van Valkenburg made the case that Koepka and DeChambeau should be paired on Thursday at the U.S. Open, something I agree with, and I think it should be taken further. In the PIP era we may get more of these feuding personalities, and it is in golf’s best interest to acknowledge it and grow it.
Koepka is a master at feuding in the social media age. But there probably will be more players like him, masters of the internet who know exactly how to play to the crowds. There’s money at stake in doing so. Once, on an Instagram Live, a fan asked Koepka why he adopted a “meathead, narcissistic persona.” He stared straight the camera and said “just to fuck with you. That’s why.” He is savvy and appears to know exactly what he’s doing.
Koepka has been asked whether the feud will spill over into this year’s Ryder Cup, where he and DeChambeau will be teammates. Koepka didn’t see a reason it would hurt the team, and I tend to agree. The best teams often feature in-house rivalries. Two Seahawks got in a fistfight a few days before the team won the Super Bowl by five touchdowns. The idea that Koepka making sarcastic, branded Twitter videos would sink a Ryder Cup team seems, at present, a little far-fetched. Koepka sees the rivalry as “growing the game” and thinks it will help draw younger eyeballs to the sport, another notion I agree with. Two dudes hating each other is natural. It happens in every other men’s sport and it can happen here, organically, and not kill the sport. Golf is a game of traditions, and class and etiquette and all that, all of which can remain—no one is asking these guys to fistfight on a tee box. We are asking a sport to shine a light on some very real tension.
The legendary All Blacks rugby team of New Zealand have a famous policy: “No dickheads.” (Yes, that’s the name of the official policy.) The reason this policy exists is because the All Blacks are obsessed with the idea of chemistry and work ethic. The beauty of an individual sport is that you can have as many of these kinds of characters as possible and it might help the product. I don’t think either Koepka or DeChambeau falls into this category, mind you—I’d probably enjoy a beer with either—but the fact of the matter is that the tour can help tell the story of any personality. Not everyone has to be liked, or wants to be liked. Not everyone is friends. There is really no such thing as a relatable athlete: Any elite athlete is more skilled than your average human, and even those athletes who seem relatable usually aren’t, given their discipline and practice habits. Having said that, there is nothing more relatable than Koepka’s inability to hide his disgust at a person he works with who he simply doesn’t like. That’s a universal experience whether you’re a four-time major winner or an accountant. The tour can tell that story. Hell, Koepka obviously wants to tell this story.
How does this end? My guess is it lasts a few more years, until one of the two fades from competition, or Bryson somehow out-alphas Brooks and the feud fades away. They will almost certainly play in a “Match”-style exhibition before it ends. That’s the big payoff to modern golf, in the same way an old WWE feud paid off on pay-per-view. You gotta pay to see conflict resolution. It wouldn’t be the end of something, but the beginning. A new era of golf is here and it’s on the internet. All of it.