We finally got Brooks Koepka vs. Bryson. Here’s how it went down
ROCHESTER, N.Y. — There’s a little ritual that happens when a professional golfer hits out of a bunker.
First he knocks the sand off his shoes. He tosses his wedge down onto his bag. He grabs his putter. He marks his ball. And then, because his caddie is busy raking the bunker from which he’s just emerged, he flips his ball to the caddie of his playing partner, who towels it down and gets it ready for play.
Every caddie on Tour knows that this is how it’s done; it’s part of the waltz that is a tournament pairing. Golf is an individual sport, but they’re called playing partners for a reason. As a fan it’s only in the rarest of circumstances that you’d even notice towel-sharing, anyway. When Bryson DeChambeau played out of the bunker at Oak Hill’s sixth hole and tossed his ball to Ricky Elliot, caddie to Brooks Koepka? Elliot didn’t think twice about it. He wiped down DeChambeau’s ball, returned it to his hand and got on with it. That’s golf. That’s his job. But that doesn’t mean these were normal circumstances, either.
IT WAS TWO YEARS AGO THIS WEEK that Brooks vs. Bryson transformed into a full-on thing. You may have forgotten that it was the 2021 PGA Championship, but you can see the video in your mind’s eye, or at least the memes that followed. DeChambeau walked behind Koepka. Koepka rolled his eyes at the very sound of his voice. A feud born.
The two had traded barbs before then, with their war of words dating back to at least January 2019. Their back-and-forths had centered on petty slights: slow play, trophies, abs, rules. But the video felt different. It felt real. The mutual distaste wasn’t some drummed-up media invention; these two just didn’t mesh, and suddenly tens of millions of people knew Koepka’s feelings quite clearly. The fact that they were Ryder Cup teammates and two of the best players in the world meant they’d share locker rooms and tee times going forward. The nature of golf meant it’d hardly be Federer-Nadal, but still, we’d never seen anything quite like it.
The months that followed only ratcheted up the rivalry. Koepka’s supporters inundated DeChambeau with “Brooksy!” cheers all summer long. One “Brooksy” yell is an innocent heckle but dozens of Brooksys every single hole for several months is tougher to deal with. DeChambeau eventually stopped speaking to the media, but the situation devolved so much behind the scenes the Tour eventually created a hard-to-enforce heckling ban.
Still, this was golf. It wasn’t like the two were ever going to square up. The golf world’s best hope was that they’d square off. And not just in the manufactured setting of a 12-hole Match. We needed a showdown in something that really mattered.
ON SATURDAY, TWO YEARS (or two hundred?) after the eye-roll, DeChambeau and Koepka strode onto the first tee at Oak Hill for their third-round pairing at the PGA Championship. This was the first time they’d ever played together in a major as professionals (they were paired together in the final round of the 2016 Masters, when DeChambeau was still an amateur), and it would count, too: their duel was coming in the third-to-last group.
DeChambeau was announced first and nobody clapped. On this soggy Saturday every spectator had one hand in a pocket and the other on the handle of an umbrella. Plenty yelled, though. Some shouted their approval. Others booed; one anti-Bryson cell roared from the bleachers with particular animosity. He took a lash at his driver and was back under his umbrella before the ball had carried the bunker on the left and settled in the fairway. Not the rain nor the chill nor his newer, svelter self have undone the years of speed-training that made him the longest pro in the game. He was off.
Koepka came next. There were some boos sprinkled in amongst the cheers, but judging by decibel his reception was more positive than that of his playing partner.
EVERYTHING HAS CHANGED NOW. Two years can be a long time in any sport, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a two-year span in pro golf’s history where quite this much has changed. The most obvious change for these two is that they both compete for LIV, positioning them shoulder to shoulder as two of the upstart circuit’s highest-paid and highest-profile signees. The PGA Tour’s high-profile feud isn’t really a feud anymore — and it’s left the PGA Tour.
LIV’s position in the golf world lends itself to an us vs. them approach. While Koepka hasn’t exactly become a LIV cheerleader, he and DeChambeau have spent more time in the same circles. They’ve played together in events. The sight of the two in close proximity was new for us, but it’s not new for them. Not anymore.
Asked post-round about their dynamic, DeChambeau leaned on their respective LIV captaincies as a point of mutual investment.
“I think we have a common goal, growth of the game,” he said. (You’re free to roll your eyes at that, Koepka-style.) “We have franchises to focus on now and also good golf to play.”
On Saturday there were reminders of those franchises. It’s still surprising to see DeChambeau decked out in anything other than Puma, his longtime sponsor, but his LIV move has put that in the past. In contrast to Koepka’s all-Nike rainsuit, DeChambeau wore USA pants, presumably from a Ryder Cup set. He wore a navy Zero Restriction jacket, logo-free. He wore a pair of Cuater shoes. And his hat, like his golf bag, bore his own logo. It wasn’t until the rain stopped that he de-layered to reveal a Crushers shirt, and even then those LIV franchises felt far away as good golf took first, second and third priority.
DeChambeau began the day at three under par, two shots off the lead. Koepka was a shot behind him. They had a goal in common but by definition they couldn’t both achieve it. There wasn’t any chatter on the way down the fairway.
FOUR-PLUS HOURS LATER the two came striding up No. 18, a beefy par-4 lined with stands. Koepka had teed off first, a result of the 30-foot birdie putt he’d rammed in on the previous green. He walked ahead on the fairway. He hit first on his approach, landed it closer to the hole and walked ahead again. He wasn’t just in the process of beating DeChambeau, he was in the process of beating the entire field.
Roars of Brooksy chased him down the fairway, doing double duty as cheers for Koepka and jeers at his opponent. It felt like a coronation for Koepka and an arena of mean for DeChambeau, now four shots behind on the day.
“Take it to him, Brooksy!”
And then, an outlier:
“Nobody likes either of you!”
All day your ears would have done a better job than your eyes in determining this as a matchup of interest. The two occupied the same physical spaces but barely overlapped otherwise. The weather contributed to that atmosphere. When it’s raining a player’s entire focus is on staying dry, so each seemed content to stand under his own umbrella, ricocheting raindrops in lieu of conversation.
They exchanged a few words during waits on tee boxes but each stayed in his process besides that. That’s typical for Koepka, though.
“I don’t really talk much during my whole round, ever,” he said. “So I’m pretty focused on what I’ve got to do. I’d say I probably talk even less on major championship weeks.”
He enjoyed the crowd creating the atmosphere on his behalf.
“I love New York. It’s always fun. Like I said, you do something really well, they are going to let you know; and if you do something pretty poor, they are going to let you know, and I just love that,” he said.
Asked how his pairing went, he made it clear he enjoyed letting his play doing the talking, too.
“I mean, I shot 4-under, so you tell me,” he said.
DeChambeau did his best to walk the same line.
“If we got applause, that’s fantastic and if not, you know what, whatever. It is what it is.”
THE ADMIRATION FOR KOEPKA was an appreciation of his past accomplishments and of his return to glory. This version of Koepka inspires awe and intimidation, too; as his name ascended to the top of the leaderboard others fell away. By day’s end he’d posted four-under 66, the best round of the day by two shots, a score that gave him the 54-hole lead.
When Netflix’s Full Swing came out this February we were treated to a vulnerable version of Koepka we’d never really seen. He admitted he wasn’t sure he could keep up with Scottie Scheffler and the Tour’s new top dogs. He admitted how much winning another major would mean. And he admitted he wasn’t sure he’d be healthy enough to get there.
On Thursday Koepka made a point to correct the record.
“I think everyone misconstrues the confidence for the injury,” he said. “I just got into bad habits. It’s tough. You can’t play. I came back too soon and played for too long. But look, I moved on from that now, so I’m pretty pleased.”
The message was pretty clear. He’s healthy. He’s confident. He’s back.
Sunday will still determine nearly everything about Koepka’s week. It’s his second consecutive 54-hole lead at a major, after all, and he didn’t finish off the last one. But one thing is clear: the armor’s back on.
Come Sunday, he’ll look to protect his lead. DeChambeau headlines those in hot pursuit.
This time he’ll be one pairing away.