Las Vegas exists to distort reality, whether briefly enough to separate cocksure gamblers from their chip stacks or long enough to market a bejeweled Liberace as every housewife’s dream. So it was with The Match, in which two men who share a genuine antipathy circled each other like a pair of chummy middle managers at a company holiday party, exchanging compliments that made up in diplomacy what they lacked in sincerity, and betraying nothing more belligerent than an eye-roll.
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka conducted themselves as any two strangers randomly paired for a Friday game might, piloting separate carts and saying little beyond “Nice putt” and “That’s good.” The last time Vegas witnessed two high-profile men be so taciturn about their common business, Bugsy Siegel and Meyer Lansky were running the Strip.
Jay Monahan earns around $4 million a year, which easily qualifies him as America’s most well-compensated babysitter. Yet it might barely exceed the hourly minimum wage given all of the extra work the PGA Tour commissioner just created for himself.
The PGA Tour returns this week to the birthplace of its most engaging tussle in recent memory, even if the most attentive fan would struggle to recall a single shot ever struck at Liberty National Golf Club.
On the morning of the final round of the Northern Trust two years ago—August 11, 2019 — I was standing by the practice putting green with Ricky Elliott and Claude Harmon III, respectively the caddie and (now former) coach of Brooks Koepka, when a clearly vexed Bryson DeChambeau approached and instructed Elliott to tell his boss to make any comments about slow play “to my face.”
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.
In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior golf industry executive wondered aloud about the possibility that a member of the U.S. team might take a knee during the ceremonies to protest racial injustice. It was a laughable notion, since the only issues on which PGA Tour players have been apt to take a stand are slow play and high taxes.
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.
It’s doubtful Cicero had the PGA Tour’s pace of play policy in mind when he wrote “The more laws, the less justice,” but his pithy philosophy is no less applicable. The Tour’s code runs four pages and is a masterclass in authoring rules designed to be unenforceable.
Consider the particulars. Players are permitted 40-50 seconds to play their shots depending on the order of play in a group, but exceeding that limit doesn’t incur a bad time. For a group to be officially considered out of position they not only have to exceed the allotted time to play a shot but also reach a hole that is open and free of play. Only then does a group go on the clock. The punishment for that bad time is, well, nothing. A second bad time earns a one-stroke penalty, the third gets two. A DQ only comes at four. The fines levied are so meager as to be meaningless.
The most imbecilic mind on Tour would struggle to parse the policy but not to manipulate it.
In the run-up to the 2016 Ryder Cup, a friend of mine sat in a meeting during which a senior official on the American side wondered aloud about the possibility a U.S. team member might take a knee during the ceremonies. It was a laughable notion, as though the official believed Colin Kaepernick were protesting slow play or high taxes — those being the only issues on which PGA Tour players are apt to take a public stand.
That reality was reinforced last week as some of the world’s best golfers competed in the Saudi International, a tournament created solely to cast Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman’s regime in a positive light. The players received stout appearance fees, which was only fair since they had to navigate awkward questions about war crimes in Yemen and that bone saw murder in Istanbul. The payment was more for performing in the media than on the golf course, and the well-compensated chorus remained steady of voice all week.
When Rory McIlroy recently answered a routine question about his schedule for 2019, it was treated as golf’s equivalent of Brexit – a shocking and foolhardy distancing from Europe.
“I am starting my year off in the States and that will be the big focus of mine up until the end of August, and then we will assess from there,” he said. “I want to play against the strongest fields week-in and week-out, and for the most part of the season that is in America. If I want to continue to contend in the majors and to continue my journey back towards the top of the game, then that’s what I want to do.”
McIlroy was speaking at the European Tour’s season-ending event in Dubai and knew he would draw incoming fire for his candor.
“Everyone has to look out for themselves,” he said. “And next year, I’m looking out for me.”
For Ricky Elliott, 2018 ended much as it began: going downhill fast.
In December, that meant a maiden ski trip to Colorado. January hadn’t been as much fun for Elliott, the longtime caddie for Brooks Koepka. Just a few holes into the year in Hawaii, a wrist injury benched his man for three months.
“It was worrying. I honestly thought if we could play at all this year it would be a bonus,” Elliott said. “It was one of those dark areas where there was no timetable on his comeback. It was a long period of not knowing if you’re going to have a job. I felt more sorry for him than I did for myself.”
The Ryder Cup had its share of weekend thrills for fans, but for players the drama began much earlier. Tuesday evening, to be exact. And not at Le Golf National but seven miles away at the Trianon Palace hotel, which was home to both the U.S. and European teams. That’s when officials from the French Anti-Doping Agency (AFLD) arrived unannounced to conduct random drug tests.
The players had reason to be surprised. It was the first time drug tests were administered at a Ryder Cup. That it happened in Paris should be less surprising. The French take their anti-doping laws seriously. That’s why Lance Armstrong now owns as many Tour de France victories as Jack Nicklaus.
It was fitting that the 100th PGA Championship was contested on a golf course with all the design variety of a boxing ring. Sunday’s slugfest deserved to be conducted under the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules rather than the U.S. Golf Association’s.
Brooks Koepka confirmed himself as the undisputed heavyweight champion with his second major victory of the year and third in six starts, having sat out the Masters with a wrist injury. His was a decisive win, but it was a win on points.
This was no knockout. The greatest of them all, a man who has been punch drunk and on the ropes for several years, was still on his feet, and until his very last shot was throwing haymakers with a ferocity not seen in a decade.