Just a week ago, golf star Brooks Koepka slammed reporters at the U.S. Open for discussing the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf competition.
“I’m here. I’m here at the U.S. Open. I’m ready to play U.S. Open, and I think it kind of sucks, too, you are all throwing this black cloud over the U.S. Open. It’s one of my favourite events. I don’t know why you guys keep doing that,” he barked at journalists.
“I’m tired of the conversations,” he added. “I’m tired of all this stuff. Like I said, y’all are throwing a black cloud on the U.S. Open. I think that sucks.”
Today, he reportedly sealed a seven-figure defection to the PGA Tour’s rival organisation, ahead of LIV’s second-ever event next week in Portland, USA. In hindsight, maybe we should have seen Koepka’s defection coming given his pointed, defensive answers.
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The four-time major winner, now 31 and ranked 19th in the world, joins a stacked list of high-profile players to join the breakaway tour that is as controversial as it is wealthy, thanks to its backing by Saudi Arabia.
Koepka is the 10th winner of at least one major to leave the PGA Tour in favour of a payday, joining Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Bryson DeChambeau, Patrick Reed, Sergio Garcia, Louis Oosthuizen, Martin Kaymer, Charl Schwartzel and Graeme McDowell.
And while the snowballing list of top players quitting the PGA Tour (now eight of the top 50 players in the world) appears to be a major blow to golf’s mainstay tour, the truth is more complex.
Koepka won back-to-back US Opens in 2017 and ‘18, and did the same at the PGA Championship in 2018 and ‘19. Since then, injuries have seen him slide out of golf’s elite – he has not won on the Tour since February 2021. In this year’s majors, he missed the cut at the Masters and finished 55th at both the PGA Championship and U.S. Open. He’s a mile away from his world No. 1 days.
What is fascinating, though, is a growing trend in the players who are signing on the dotted line for the new competition.
Koepka has long been a polarising figure in the sport, partially due to his openly-stated dislike of the sport itself, having once said: “If I could do it over again, I’d play baseball. 100 per cent, no doubt … Golf is kind of boring.”
He’s fiercely competitive, dismissive and rude toward opponents, and displays a self-confidence bordering on outright arrogance. He hates slow players, and despises the grind of week-in-week-out tournaments, with his sole focus seemingly being winning majors. In short, he apparently thinks only of himself and winning.
Koepka is a villain of the golfing world – but he’s just one of a host of divisive stars who have turned to LIV Golf. His long-running feud with big-hitting, pushing-the-limits-of-golf Bryson DeChambeau will be renewed in the new organisation. Others, like Patrick Reed, have a reputation for bending the rules. Even players like Ian Poulter or Sergio Garcia have had a bad-boy image at times in their careers.
Then, of course, there’s the new organisation’s figurehead, the main man of the daring push to revolutionise the sport: Phil Mickelson. Some love ‘Lefty’, plenty hate him. He’s certainly thrown up his fair share of heated and dramatic moments over the years.
To put it simply, almost all of golf’s current crop of villains have joined LIV. It feeds into a growing narrative of a moral battle between the ‘good guys’, those turning down monster pay packets to remain with the PGA Tour, and the ‘bad guys’, those who are siding with Saudi Arabia and that nation’s shoddy human rights record.
Of course, that is an oversimplification. And beloved players are quickly painted as ‘good guys’ the moment they sign up for LIV. But the manner in which golfers have reacted to questions around Saudi Arabia’s actions and ethics has only strengthened this idealistic schism. That was never more true than Mickelson’s staggering comments about Saudi Arabia.
“They’re scary motherf — ers to get involved with,” Mickelson said. “We know they killed [U.S. journalist Jamal] Khashoggi and have a horrible record on human rights. They execute people over there for being gay. Knowing all of this, why would I even consider it?”
Why indeed? Why would any player?
Mickelson continued: “Because this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reshape how the PGA Tour operates. They’ve been able to get by with manipulative, coercive, strongarm tactics because we, the players, had no recourse … unless you have leverage, [they] won’t do what’s right. And the Saudi money has finally given us that leverage.”
So it’s about player power – plus money, of course. But for many of these allegedly self-serving players, doing things their own way has been a trademark of their careers. Brutal honesty, however uncouth or offensive, has been their way of cutting through golf’s temperate climate. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Mickelson and co recognise the evil of the nation but still opt to play in their tournament.
Koepka’s own comments about the league have also come back to bite him.
In early 2020, when rumours began to swirl about the rival league, Koepka said: “Money doesn’t matter … Money’s not going to make me happy. I just want to play against the best.”
But with only eight of the world’s top 50 having signed up for LIV so far, is that really the world’s best? Cynical critics would say that a $100-million cheque doesn’t hurt.
For the Win writer Andy Nesbitt declared: “Brooks has long made it known that he barely likes professional golf. He has bragged about how little he practices and how much he only cares about major championships.
“So, he’s a perfect fit for this new empty league. He should be the spokesman for it – ‘If you don’t care about anything but yourself, come and LIV!’ would be a perfect tagline.”
Koepka’s departure from the PGA Tour, along with the rumours of world No. 20 Abraham Ancer’s looming defection, have been painted as another blow to the authority and pedigree of golf’s traditional establishment.
That is true – both are fine players, capable of thrilling crowds and TV viewers alike. But in Koepka’s case, he perfectly fits the mould of the new tour, where polarising figures – those who exist on the social or ethical outer of the ‘gentleman’s game’ – can amass power and riches, and stick up the proverbial middle finger to those traditional powerbrokers who ruled their careers to date.
For the PGA Tour, losing Koepka as a player is hardly a fatal blow. He is a fading star in a frail body wracked by injuries. But losing him as a dramatic character could prove to be more damaging.
Golf needs bad boys. It needs feuds like Koepka vs DeChambeau, like it needs loud, divisive characters that fans can hate or heckle.
The PGA Tour has lost almost all of them. Sure, there’s still Tiger Woods, but his incredible comeback from career- if not life-threatening injuries has reformed his previous bad-boy antics and won over most of his critics. Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas can be hot-headed at times, and the latter’s homophobic comments in the past have been largely swept under the rug as time goes on. New villains will, of course, emerge to fill the gap.
But the PGA Tour, whether it intends to or not, risks becoming a pale and stale competition – while the rebels frolic or fight their way around the world on the back of Riyadh’s riyals.