Alpha dog athletes don’t rely solely upon the tools of their trade to stake out their territory. A well-timed gesture or pointed comment can be just as corrosive to the confidence of rivals as any excellence in the arena. Roger Federer was a master of it, sometimes congratulating a victorious opponent for having played the match of his life (translation: you had to play the match of your life to beat me!). Tiger Woods is golf’s greatest practitioner of psych ops, so he’s unlikely to have missed Brooks Koepka’s exquisite mastery of the dark art at Bethpage Black.
Not that pre-tournament press conference, during which he declared majors easier to win than regular PGA Tour events. No, Koepka’s alpha doggedness was on display in subtle drone strikes targeting Woods himself.
Day One: There was a wide swath of open space around Woods on the practice range Thursday morning before the first round. Koepka arrived, his familiar swagger suggesting a man not expecting a brawl but prepared should one erupt. He took the range position directly to Woods’s right, in the eyeline of the Tiger. He wanted Woods to have a real close look at the firepower he was going to face that day. He bettered his playing partner by nine strokes.
Day Two: The polite provocations continued. When Woods hit a ghastly hook with his opening drive, Koepka took a large sideways step into the tee box and raised his left arm. His signal may have warned the endangered gallery far below, but they were not the intended audience. He wanted Woods to see him. He clipped him by another six strokes that day.
Day Three: Tiger didn’t have one. Koepka led everyone else by seven.
There are many similarities between Koepka and Woods, not least that they bludgeon courses into submission and display a studied disregard for their fellow competitors. “He’s like Tiger in that they march to the beat of their own drums. They do things their own way,” says Claude Harmon III, Koepka’s coach of six years.
Who intimidates your guy, I ask?
Who intimidated Tiger?
“Nobody. And I don’t think that’s an arrogant thing. If you could design an athlete you’d want one like Brooks. He doesn’t really have a rear view mirror.”
On the eve of the final round of the PGA Championship, Koepka did what he always does: stayed in his rental house and tuned in to Golf Channel to watch highlights. He wanted to see a replay of the short par putt he had missed on the 9th green. The highlight reel showed Jordan Spieth pull his approach on the same hole into a greenside bunker on the way to an ugly double bogey.
“He hit it in the bunker from there?” A surprised Koepka said to Harmon.
“You were playing with him!” the coach replied.
Koepka just shrugged. For a man almost childishly alert to perceived slights off the course, he moves through the choppy waters of a major like a shark focused on real meals and uninterested in the chum bobbing along the way. He overcame four consecutive bogeys on his inward nine Sunday to beat Dustin Johnson by two shots with a final-round 74.
“Brooks has just enough of the arrogance that you need to be the best,” Harmon says. “Tiger has that. Phil has that. Jack had that. Tom Brady has that. Roger Federer has that. You can’t be a great athlete and champion without a hint of f*** you arrogance. They all have it.”
And they’re not apprehensive about displaying it. The crowding on the range and the first tee signal were sly put-downs, but Woods will have recognized them as put-downs nonetheless. Many a glass-jawed boxer shows bravado before a punch is thrown. Being eager and willing to back up the strut is what separates the alpha from the omega.
Harmon remembers a long ago breakfast with his dad, Butch, and NBA great Charles Barkley. On a TV overhead, ESPN was showing highlights of a hoops game from the previous night.
“They interviewed some guy who said, ‘You know, I didn’t take the last shot but I couldn’t get the ball,’” Harmon says. Barkley snorted. “Lemme tell you something,” he said to his companions, “if you want the ball with 10 seconds left, you can get it. Nobody wants it. Everybody is going to pass it.”
Majors are for guys who don’t pass. “Brooks wants the ball when it counts,” Harmon says.
Golfweek.com, May 19, 2019.