While it remains unclear how Brooks Koepka’s engagement strategy will impact his share of the PGA Tour’s $40 million bonus fund for players who “move the needle” with fans, there must already be a direct correlation between his social media posts and Jay Monahan’s Mylanta consumption.
The last couple of weeks — and in particular the last 24 hours — will have reminded the commissioner that the solution to one problem invariably creates other, intertwined sources of heartburn. In his bid to neuter the threat posed by a Saudi-financed rival tour, Monahan devised the Player Impact Program to bestow cash on the needle-movers and prevent their splitting.
For respectability, the scheme was draped in gossamer-thin metrics around fan engagement on social media. That, in turn, charts a perilous course for an organization still laboring under the code imposed by Monahan’s predecessor, Tim Finchem, who viewed displays of individualism and personality about as favorably as the North Korean civil service.
And one man is single-handedly demonstrating how the Tour is straddling cultures that cannot co-exist.
Koepka treats social media trolling as the fifth major, approaching it with a determination to vanquish all challengers. Fellow players, athletes and announcers are all legitimate targets for a guy who uses Twitter as unerringly as a sniper does a scope. His most frequent target has been Bryson DeChambeau, the pair having manhood-measuring contests about slow play, length, abdominal muscles and major trophy cases.
For golf fans accustomed to the arid landscape of “These Guys Are Good” marketing and pablum about every player being a charitable lover of puppies, the Brooks-Bryson sparring has come as welcome relief.
The peak — or nadir, if you’re of the Finchem disposition — came two weeks ago when footage was leaked of an unaired Golf Channel interview with Koepka at the PGA Championship in which he eye-rolled and cussed disdainfully as his hapless and blissfully unaware foil walked by. That week at Kiawah Island, a smattering of fans hollered, “Come on, Brooksy!” at DeChambeau and his obvious umbrage was noted.
The tedious trend continued at this week’s Memorial Tournament, culminating on Friday when a number of his vocal antagonists were booted, with witnesses claiming DeChambeau pointed them out to security.
There are many valid reasons to show loudmouths the door at a golf tournament, but the sin of calling someone “Brooksy” ain’t among them. Tuning out hecklers is a basic requirement for any professional athlete. Perhaps realizing that no one likes a whiny snitch, DeChambeau attempted to defuse things after his round, saying the name-calling was “flattering.” But his inability to ignore the taunts is likely to just draw more. (See: Montgomerie, Colin.)
Ever alert to opportunity, Koepka quickly posted to social media a video announcing that his partners at Michelob would give a free case of beer to any of his fans whose day was “cut short” at the Memorial. As an exercise in trolling and sponsor activation, it was impressive. As professional conduct, it was less so.
This is sport for Koepka, and he’s damned good at it. But his ‘free beer for boors’ stunt crosses the line from entertaining fans to enlisting them as co-conspirators. He must know the effect will be to incite more heckling of a fellow competitor and that’s a dangerous game to play these days. Ask Trae Young, who was spit on by a fan. Or Russell Westbrook, who had popcorn dumped on him. Or Kyrie Irving, whose head was the target of a tossed water bottle. There is a cancer metastasizing in American sport of people who believe that buying a ticket makes them an actor in the action, not merely a spectator to it.
Koepka knows intimately the perils of ungoverned spectators. He was engulfed by them on the final hole at the PGA Championship, and left fearful of further injury to his surgically repaired knee. He is dancing along the third rail by emboldening the same element that endangered him at Kiawah Island.
On Saturday, I asked Koepka if he has any regrets about weaponizing wankers against DeChambeau.
“I’d never condone anyone being a distraction during someone’s swing or when they are about to hit,” he said. “As professionals, we do enjoy fans getting engaged at the appropriate times. It’s part of sport and competition. Hecklers are always going to be a part of any live performance. We all know that out there. We all get called different names. I’ve been called DJ many times, even when I was slipping at Bethpage [where a faltering Koepka held off Dustin Johnson in the ’19 PGA]. It’s part of it. He even said he considers it flattering.”
“With the Michelob Ultras, I wanted fans to know I saw what was going on and I appreciate fans who care about golf. It’s great to see fans out there loving it, having fun after a year of no one.”
I suggested to Koepka that compensating booted fans with beer encourages an environment of heckling.
“I’m not condoning disrespectful or inappropriate behavior,” he replied. “I’m engaging in helping grow the game of golf and growing the Tour. I’m here for people being engaged and excited about golf, as long as it doesn’t cross the line.”
Another shot of Mylanta, Mr. Monahan? Best make it a double.
Golf needs more Koepka, more DeChambeau, and more fans. But it doesn’t need more oafs who are convinced a national TV audience is breathlessly awaiting their loudly slurred contributions to the comedic canon. Koepka is showing just how impossible a balancing act it will be as the Tour licenses players to engage fans while simultaneously trying to micromanage the messaging.
DeChambeau is guileless but not blameless. He can’t summon the gendarmes every time he hears a crack he doesn’t like, and the PGA Tour needs to stop its security — usually local police departments — from enabling his infantile reactions. But there is a big difference between an amiable jock razzing a teammate and a schoolyard bully picking on the defenseless nerd, and Koepka’s jousting with DeChambeau now feels about as much a battle of equals as a hunter clubbing a baby seal.
Like all schoolyard juvenilia, this soap opera has a limited lifespan. In keeping with the rules governing adolescent spats, the onus is firmly upon the oldest kid to grow up.
That means you, Brooksy.
Published at Golfweek.com, June 5, 2021.