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For Brooks Koepka, reality beats the hype

July 01, 2019
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Back in may, a week before our CBS broadcast of the PGA Championship at Bethpage, our communications department put together a media conference call attended by about 30 writers. Sir Nick Faldo was on the call with me, along with Amanda Balionis; our executive producer, Harold Bryant; producer, Lance Barrow; and our chairman, Sean McManus. What transpired is illustrative of the hype-versus-reality battle that dominates the media universe like never before.

Naturally there were questions about the PGA’s date change from August to May, as well as chatter about the difficulty of Bethpage Black. Then, for perhaps the next 40 minutes, the dominant topic of discussion was Tiger Woods and his chances of backing up his amazing Masters victory. Tiger is central to any conversation, so that was predictable and expected.

As the call began to wind down, questions started coming in about other key players in the field. One question was, “What’s wrong with Rory McIlroy?” This struck a raw nerve in me, and my patience wore a little thin. My take on Rory was, “It’s all in how you look at it. At this point he’s finished outside the top 10 only twice and hasn’t missed a cut. He won the Players Championship two months ago. What’s wrong with Rory? How about what’s right with Rory?”

I pivoted to a mild rant about Brooks Koepka, who to this point had not been mentioned once. “Poor Brooks Koepka,” I said. “If I don’t bring up his name right now, you guys are never going to bring him up. It’s borderline tragic in terms of how you cover a player or subject. He’s having the best run in golf since Tiger in 2000 and 2001. Forget how much time he exerts and gives to those of us who cover him. I’m not concerned with that. I’m just talking about facts.

”I rolled off some numbers on what Koepka had accomplished, pre-Bethpage: “In his last 13 major championships, he’s had 11 top-13 finishes. That means he’s been in contention 11 out of 13 majors. That breaks down to eight top 10s, seven top 6s, six top 5s, four top 2s, with three wins and a second.”

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I was calling out the sports media, and I didn’t spare Jim Nantz: “We may not think it’s interesting enough to make the public follow along, but I’ve got to do a better job of that. It starts with me. And I think for those of us who cover the sport, we’ve got to do a better job of addressing that we have a star right here on our hands.”

If the trend continues—hype overshadowing reality and substance—Koepka might well become the next Billy Casper. I never thought anyone could eclipse Billy as the most underrated player in the history of the game. His record is staggering: 51 PGA Tour wins, including three major championships. In some respects, Billy came along at the wrong time. His career coincided with the Big Three of Palmer, Player and Nicklaus. Billy never quite got the recognition he deserved.

All this isn’t to say the attention devoted to Tiger, Rory, Jordan and Phil qualifies as hype. But ignoring Koepka’s incredible run and the lack of anticipation of what he might accomplish is symptomatic of what’s going on in the mainstream media today. The guiding principle for content producers is, “Let me sell the public on something that guarantees an audience, which in turn will help my career by proving to the bosses that people are watching or reading my work. Why tell the real story if it’s not going to generate viewers, readers or interest?” It’s basic economics and capitalism, I know. But the Koepka case is unique, a shocking example of how far things have gone.

Social media is complicit, too. In one sense, Billy Casper probably played at the right time. He had the good fortune of playing before the advent of Twitter, which increasingly controls the conversation and shapes public opinion. If Billy, a sweet and gentle soul, were alive and in his playing prime today, I have no doubt he would be savaged by the trolls for carrying a few extra pounds. Billy was a tough competitor and strong person, but I can’t help but wonder if the meanness would have affected him.

The day before the PGA Championship got underway, there was another interview session, this time in the media tent. The entire CBS announce team answered questions before a sizable throng. Afterward, several writers and broadcasters asked me about my Koepka comments from the week before. My description of the media’s coverage of Koepka had caused quite a stir, and now the follow-up questions were coming. One young broadcaster asked me, “So, do you believe there should be more hype about Brooks Koepka?”

“No,” I answered. “There doesn’t need to be more hype. There needs to be more reality.” Hype, I explained, is making more of something than it is. In Koepka’s case, he just needs those of us in the media to deal in reality. Brooks Koepka by every metric is a huge star. If we in the media—and fans across social media—depict him as anything less, we aren’t telling the truth.