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.”
Oftentimes, the most revealing number in a professional golfer’s ledger isn’t one found among the many Strokes Gained categories, those statistics that speak to fairways, greens and putts, but not to a man’s drive, devotion or distractions. With the enigma that is Rickie Fowler, the most illuminating figure is this: 11 years into his career, he has more commercial sponsors than PGA Tour victories.
And it’s not even close.
There was a period when Fowler’s ample screen time on Sunday afternoons was earned through his fine play. Now that time is paid for by a seemingly endless parade of partners confident that Fowler can help them sell everything from insurance and automobiles to mortgages and underwear. It’s the Arnold Palmer business model, and more power to Fowler for leveraging it so astutely. But at what cost to his career?
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.
By lunchtime Friday at the Players Championship, the normally fearsome TPC Sawgrass was looking almost toothless, with the scoring average hovering around 71 and the cut likely to fall under par for only the third time in the last 20 years.
The low scoring has surprised a lot of veterans who have endured tougher times at this Pete Dye brute, not least two-time winner Tiger Woods.
“It’s in perfect shape, it’s just playing really short. It’s so hot out here, the ball’s flying. We’re probably playing close to a club less than we normally do,” he said after a second round 71. “The cut right now is under par, which is unheard of around here.”
The course may be playing relatively easy for the best, but how about for the rest?