Today’s topic is golfer Brooks Koepka … and why nobody cares. I will admit right up front that the premise is questionable at best, that some people obviously DO care about Brooks Koepka, that you, in fact, might care about Brooks Koepka and, as such, will feel deeply offended by this whole exercise.
If you think people care about Brooks Koepka, you can probably stop here. There’s no reason for you to endure the rest of this.
If you are still reading, let me tell you what brought this on. Sunday, Koepka breezed (with only a brief complication) to his fourth major championship in 24 months years. He is currently the two-time defending champion of both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship, and he might have beaten Tiger Woods at this year’s Masters too had it not been for a moment of doubt on the 12th hole. This is rarified air, the sort of run only a handful of golfers have ever achieved. Well, it’s not even a handful.
The only golfers to have won four major championships over a two-year span (referring to the modern majors, the Masters, U.S. Open, Open Championship, and PGA Championship):
- Tiger Woods (2000-01; 2005-06)
- Brooks Koepka (2017-19)*
*Tiger won four of eight majors in two years … Koepka got a ninth -tournament chance because they moved up the date of the PGA Championship.
This is why the Tiger comparisons have come out … and yet, I don’t think it’s any great revelation to say that when Tiger took the stage, he became a worldwide sensation while Koepka, er, has not.
CBS tried to make Sunday’s final round a celebration of Koepka. You can imagine the meeting where they went through their options — pretend someone else might win or celebrate Koepka — and decided that this was the only way to go. Koepka came into Sunday with a seemingly insurmountable seven-shot lead, and there really weren’t ANY other story lines. His final round playing partner was a friendly and entirely unthreatening journeyman golfer named Harold Varner III, who has not finished better than fifth in a PGA event since, well, he’s never finished better than fifth in a PGA event.
And the only name golfer within seven shots of the lead was world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, who basically IS Brooks Koepka with more regular wins and fewer major wins.
So, yes, CBS tried to make Sunday about “greatness.” Here, they trumpeted, was a chance for us to appreciate the extraordinary golfing power of Brooks Koepka, who is playing the big tournaments about as well as anyone ever has. They tried their best.
But, as far as I can tell, it didn’t work … and I’m not exactly sure why.
When Tiger Woods ran away from the field, it was mesmerizing. Watching him blow everyone away at Augusta, at Pebble Beach, at St. Andrews, won, it was must-see television.
When Brooks Koepka runs away from the field, it feels impossibly boring. I’m not saying that to be rude; I’m not even entirely sure this is true. I don’t know why Tiger Woods exploded the imagination (and still does) while Koepka sparks little-to-no joy at all. I guess that’s what this whole post is about: What is it that makes a golfing star?
I have a few guesses:
Guess 1: Woods was a phenom; Koepka was not.
People in the golf world had been following Tiger Woods since he was 3 years old and hit a golf ball on “That’s Incredible.” By the time he turned professional, he’d already won six consecutive national amateur championships — three U.S. Junior Amateurs and three U.S. Amateurs — and was the king in waiting. Heck, he was SI Sportsman of the Year BEFORE he won his first major championship.
In other words, there was expectation buzzing before he even began.
Koepka, meanwhile, was just a guy. He was a good college golfer, he turned pro, kicked around in Europe and on the Challenger Tour for a couple of years and had won just one PGA Tournament when he burst on the scene at the 2017 U.S. Open.
So when Tiger Woods won his first major, it was: “Wow.”
When Brooks Koepka won his first major, it was: “Who?”
First impressions are a big deal.
Guess 2: Tiger Woods won them in the right order.
All majors are not created the same. I like to think of the four major championships as the EGOT of golf (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). And I break them up like so:
Open Championship: Emmy
U.S. Open: Grammy
PGA Championship: Tony
Tiger won the Masters first, that’s the Oscar, that’s the star-making tournament, and shortly after that he won all four in a row and that’s how you become a legend.
Koepka won the U.S. Open first, OK, and then he won the U.S. Open again, which is like winning back-to-back Grammys. Nice. Not thrilling. But nice. And then he won the PGA, a Tony Award, and then he won another PGA, and so, OK, he’s accomplished, but he hasn’t yet won either of the two big ones.
And let’s throw this in: Woods won more than half of his major championships at the three most famous golf courses in the world: Augusta; Pebble Beach; St. Andrews. Winning at Erin Hills and Bethpage Black ain’t the same thing (though Woods also won one at Bethpage).
Guess 3: Tiger emoted.
Tiger Woods never said much that was interesting when he was at his best; Koepka is like that too. But with Tiger you could FEEL his passion when he played. He roared, he cursed, he smiled, he grimaced, he pumped his fist, he complained every time that a putt broke in the incorrect direction. You had to choose a side with him — love him, loathe him, there wasn’t really another option.
Koepka, meanwhile, is a blank slate. He gives you nothing. There are some deep within the golf community who marvel at this — they see the strong, silent type from the movies. “He doesn’t let anything bother him!” the CBS announcers who were trying hard to celebrate him on Sunday said.
That’s one way to see it. There is another, as a friend texted me: “When he looks like he doesn’t care, why should we?”
This isn’t to say that Koepka owes anyone anything more; if he needs to maintain that unreadable and bloodless demeanor to bring out his best golf, he owes it to himself and everyone else to maintain that. I’m not judging. I’m just asking why we don’t care. And that plays a part in all this.
Guess 4: Tiger was a pioneer.
This can’t and shouldn’t be ignored: There will never be another Tiger Woods. As the son of an African American man and a Thai woman, Woods was a groundbreaker. The year Tiger was born, Lee Elder became the first African-American to play in the Masters. The year before Tiger won his first U.S. Junior Amateur, Ron Townsend became the first black member of Augusta National. Woods himself became the first African American to win the U.S. Junior Amateur, the first to win the U.S. Amateur, the first to win the Masters, the PGA, the U.S. Open and the British Open.
So, it’s not fair to compare Tiger Woods to anyone else.
And it’s REALLY not fair to Brooks Koepka, whose entire “Personal Life” section on Wikipedia is: “Koepka’s younger brother, Chase, is also a professional golfer.”
Guess 5: Tiger Woods still takes up most of golf’s oxygen.
When Jack Nicklaus started winning major championships, he was called boring. At that time, golf was Arnold Palmer. There was no room for a power-hitting youngster who hit the ball longer than anyone else and rarely made mistakes and simply choked the life out of tournaments.
Back then, there were golf fans, sure. But there were more Arnie fans.
Now, there are golf fans. But there are many, many more Tiger fans.
This is something about Tiger’s emergence that, I think, gets underplayed: There was no champion for him to unseat. Golf was in flux. The dominant golfers of the previous 20 years — Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Nick Faldo — were finished. None of the young golfers had filled the void. The sport’s enduring hero (ironically) was Jack Nicklaus, who was approaching 60 when Woods won his first Masters.
Golf was waiting for a hero. Tiger showed up in just in time.
But now — Tiger is STILL the man. He’s still the biggest — often the only — story in the sport for casual fans. And he is still out there winning. Tiger fans are not just going to stop to appreciate the greatness of the new guy. No, they’re here to root for the man they grew up with.
A year ago, when Tiger Woods threatened on the final day of the PGA Championship, FOUR MILLION more people watched than had a year earlier. This year, when Tiger Woods won in Augusta, it was the most watched Masters in more than three decades even though the tournament started early because of rain threats.
The ratings this year’s PGA Championship Sunday are not out as of this writing, but you know exactly what they will look like: Almost nobody watched. Why watch? Tiger missed the cut. Koepka was in first place by a mile. Who cares?
If Koepka keeps doing this, keeps winning major championships, especially if he takes a few Masters and Open Championships, people will begin to care more. That’s inevitable. Persistent greatness eventually crashes through. But for now, Koepka just doesn’t have the story, the personality or the diverse resume to make people care — or at least to make me care. He bombs his drives, plays the smart shots, putts effectively, but it isn’t magical. At least not yet.