PGA Championship 2018: Do great athletes like Brooks Koepka deserve our love?
Brooks Koepka’s final moment at Bellerive on Sunday was perfect. With the championship wrapped up, and only a 17-foot putt standing between Koepka and his third major, everyone familiar with the ceremony of these moments wondered if Adam Scott would attempt his slightly shorter putt first, ceding the stage to Koepka. He didn’t, which is fine—the etiquette in that situation is a little ambiguous. But when Koepka left his birdie putt inches short, we all knew he’d mark his ball, let Scott finish out and then take his final stroke to great fanfare.
When he tapped in instead, Nick Faldo cried “no, no, no, no!” on the CBS telecast—not one of the great victory calls, it’s fair to say. The applause from the gallery was a little tepid, a little confused. Koepka, who usually looks like the stoic kind of superman you’d put on a military propaganda poster, wore an expression that was at least 15 percent sheepish. History will not remember how the 2018 PGA Championship literally ended, but for those of us witnessing it live, there was a definite disturbance in the sacramental rites. They invented the word “anti-climactic” for moments like these.
The reason I call it “perfect” stems from the narrative that has built up around Koepka. It’s impossible to know how a narrative forms, any more than it’s possible to determine the origin of a larger-than-average ocean wave. It began somewhere, surely, but nobody really notices until it begins to crest. And the narrative was this: Koepka, winner of two straight U.S. Opens, is under-loved. He’s a little dull, a little aloof. We the golf fans don’t feel much of anything for him.
All the usual ripples began to spread as the wave reared up. Predictable questions, accusations, counter-accusations. Was this alleged indifference justified, since Koepka doesn’t have the same captivating qualities, especially the gift of gab, as contemporaries such as Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy? Or should fans be more appreciative of his fearsome game, his equanimity under pressure, and his relentless march to greatness? If so, was this the media’s fault, for pre-judging him and dedicating the bulk of their coverage to Tiger and Phil and Jordan/Rory/Justin/Rickie? Was it the public’s fault, since the media simply takes their lead? Or did the blame lie with Koepka himself, for his blasé approach to the sport and his insistence that he never watches and doesn’t consider himself a “nerd”?
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As for the why, you can’t do better than Joel Beall’s essay on the confluence of skill and star power, and why Koepka hasn’t managed to occupy that exalted space.
As for the trajectory of the argument itself, well …
Golf narratives, once formed, rarely die before Sunday, and Koepka and his swing coach Claude Harmon III ensured that this one would only gain momentum with a story by Golf Channel’s Ryan Lavner that hit social media on Friday night. It was a fascinating look at Team Koepka, but the fascination mostly came from the fact that Koepka and Harmon seem to catalog every perceived media slight he’s ever received. And I don’t mean the word “catalog” metaphorically—read these four paragraphs of the story, and tell me it doesn’t sound like there’s an actual list somewhere:
At last year’s U.S. Open, Koepka shot 68 in the first round and again didn’t receive a media request. An hour later, as they were leaving the course, Harmon received a call saying that a TV reporter wanted to interview Koepka. “We waited there for 10 minutes!” Harmon said. “You guys weren’t interested!” Three days later, Koepka won.
Before this year’s PGA, he was summoned to the media tent for a pre-tournament news conference. The interview room here holds about a hundred people. Tiger Woods’ press gathering was standing room only; Koepka’s attracted nine PGA officials and 13 reporters.
Late Thursday afternoon, Koepka stood around his bag, waiting for a PGA media official to tap him on the shoulder and direct him to the interview area. But the request never came. Surprised, he headed to the range, hit a few balls and left.
After the first round of the U.S. Open, the defending champion didn’t make the notables page on the leader board. (“To not be looked at as the favorite but still defending was quite an interesting feeling, I guess you could say.”) After the first round here at PGA, there were a few TV segments on the club pros’ play, but no highlights of Koepka’s round.
That’s an almost Michael Jordan-level of grudge-holding! And it doesn’t even count the story’s first line, in which Koepka, with a seeming chip on his shoulder, spends his Friday morning predicting that the reluctant media will be forced to interview him after he shoots a low number. It’s a strange way to frame your own experience within a tournament, isn’t it?
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In any case, it answered an implied question underlying the whole “Koepka is unloved” narrative, which is: Does Koepka care? Emphatically, decisively, yes he does.
In September 1986, after Ivan Lendl won the U.S. Open, Sports Illustrated ran a particularly brutal cover featuring a picture of Lendl and the words “The Champion That Nobody Cares About.” Lendl was a lot like Koepka—an impressive physical specimen, great under pressure and a consummate winner. That ’86 U.S. Open was his fourth of eight eventual grand slams victories, and like Koepka, he had a very direct, flatline personality that contrasted with peers such as John McEnroe and Jimmy Connors. To complete the comparison, he was bothered enough by SI’s treatment that he still refused to speak with the magazine 11 years later.
Lendl was probably the original unloved star, playing as he did in the burgeoning era of mass media, and he’s the best analogue to Koepka. But there have been others, even in golf. Vijay Singh comes to mind—he won three majors in his career, 34 total PGA Tour events and spent 32 weeks as the World’s No. 1. And to say that he didn’t quite move the needle like Tiger Woods would be a comical understatement. It wasn’t even close, and that was partly because of Tiger and partly because of Vijay. Phil Mickelson spent the bulk of his career in Tiger’s shadow, but nobody would call him unloved. Vijay? Vijay was unloved, and that was down to Vijay.
Which brings us to the big question: What does the public owe to someone who is, undeniably, a great champion? Do they deserve our love, regardless of how we feel?
And the answer is: It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if we owe Koepka love, or if we don’t. It doesn’t matter if the fault lies with the public, the media, or the golfer and his team. The answer is irrelevant, because we’re not truly confronting a question of right or wrong here, but a question of human nature.
In medieval England, the vast majority of the king’s subjects had no idea what the king looked like—not even in a painting. They certainly never saw the man speak, and they didn’t know his personality. Even so, they summoned strong emotions of love and hate for their monarch. If that was true then, it’s true now—however naively, we believe we can put together an accurate character assessment of a public figure on very little evidence. We label people on the basis of nothing but photographs, videos, and calculated publicity campaigns. We hardly see the real person, but we think it doesn’t matter.
Such intuitive groupthink works on Brooks Koepka, too, and clearly it doesn’t amount to love. At least not in the way that Rory is loved, and Jordan is loved, and Tiger is loved. And like the phenomenon of a narrative wave, analyzing why this is true would require delving into the psychoanalytical depths of time and evolution and human judgment. When you emerged from that darkness, with horrific visions haunting your mind, you would be irrevocably insane, and unlikely to provide much insight on Brooks Koepka.
What we can say definitively is this: No matter what degree of love Koepka does or does not deserve for his achievements, there has never been a human in history who has won another person’s love by demanding it. We can conquer so much by force, but not that. And rather than wasting our energy figuring out what we should do, or why we won’t do it, it’s better to resign ourselves to the vagaries of human attachment and remember that quite often, these things change with time.