A Delightful Glimpse Into Golf’s Secret World of Bitter Feuds
Given that golf news not involving Tiger Woods remains essentially a niche concern, it came as a surprise to see the extent to which Koepka’s interview penetrated mainstream culture. National media reported on the incident with delight, and the clip was viewed millions of times online. Memes cropped up like ragweed. The whole affair even eclipsed the actual victor that week: Phil Mickelson, who at 50 became the oldest player ever to win a major championship. That achievement was, we thought, just about the biggest non-Tiger story the sport could generate. But Koepka’s expression, it seemed, tapped into something universal; his sheer annoyance transcended the game.
A week later, over in the world of tennis, the biggest news of the 2021 French Open also emerged from outside the competition itself. Just before the tournament, the second-seeded Japanese superstar, Naomi Osaka, announced that she was unwilling to attend the event’s mandatory news conferences, citing feelings of depression and anxiety related to those obligations. And when officials pushed back, threatening punitive measures beyond the fines Osaka expected, she called their bluff, withdrawing from the tournament after her first-round victory. Not only did the Open lose an off-court stare-down with one of the sport’s premier attractions, but — in an echo of Mickelson’s win — hardly anyone was paying much attention to what was happening on the court itself. Tournament officials would clearly have preferred for all this to be ironed out behind closed doors, but as Osaka continued to prosecute her case on social media, the story spun further and further from their control.
That’s what happened with the Brooks-Bryson face-off as well. After Koepka’s fusillade of swearing, the Golf Channel’s Todd Lewis, who was conducting the interview, joked that “we’re going to enjoy that in the TV compound later” — suggesting the segment would never make it to air, but would be shared among the media workers who make golf appear so well mannered. To which Koepka replied, “I honestly wouldn’t even care.”
For those used to following rough-and-tumble team sports like football or hockey, it may be difficult to appreciate just how norm-breaking behavior like this can be. Even as the video dominated headlines, the sport’s old guard hastened to downplay it. No less an august figure than Jack Nicklaus dismissed the rivalry as “media driven,” which is true mostly in the sense that Koepka and DeChambeau have indeed repeatedly used the media to express how much they genuinely dislike each other. The sport’s dread of confrontation is built on a century-old anthropologist’s dream of class-driven mores, but if the popular reaction to Koepka’s face in that interview makes one thing clear, it’s that these golfers aren’t the ones acting weird. Golf itself is.
Tennis, too. The French Open officials’ attempts to make Osaka comply with media rules are in some ways understandable: They have commitments to reporters and sponsors, and excusing one player from her obligations while requiring others to fulfill them could, arguably, create a competitive imbalance. (In the kind of development you could hardly make up, the tournament’s 11th-seeded player, Petra Kvitova, soon injured her ankle during a news conference and had to withdraw.) What feels strange is their evident belief that they could prevail at a time when their leverage has never been less in evidence. Osaka made some $50 million last year and first announced her refusal to do press to around 2.4 million followers on Instagram. She’s no great lover of clay courts, and it’s likely her expectations for success at the tournament were modest to begin with. And yet tennis apparatchiks seem to have assumed she would fall in line for the same reason golf ones presumed Koepka’s interview would be quietly passed around a private room: because that’s the done thing.
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