Sports

A Feud Fueled by Social Media Is Also Made for TV

Black Friday, an unofficial American holiday dedicated to commercialism and being sold to, felt like an appropriate date for the fifth installment of “The Match.” This made-for-TV series of golf matches started three years ago behind the star power of Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson and has since included superstars from football and basketball. This time it came calling for major championship winners with golf’s most out-in-the-open conflict, Brooks Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

The matchup came after a highly public summer feud that existed largely on social media and that fans hoped would move to the course. But the two were then never paired in a major championship or a PGA Tour tournament, so in came this lower-stakes, 12-hole event at the Wynn Golf Club in Las Vegas.

“This is what the world’s been waiting for,” Koepka told the TNT broadcast on the third tee Friday afternoon. Koepka, a strong player at the major championships, later said the match was “kind of like my major right now,” as he hit a precise approach shot to close it out with a 4 and 3 victory on the ninth hole. There were no significant moments of tension or any real contretemps, just the usual pleasantries, mild encouragements and civil interactions accompanying a golf round.

Koepka and DeChambeau spent much of the summer engaged in public sniping and expressions of distaste for each other. The feud reaches back further, into 2019, when a putting green confrontation occurred at the Northern Trust regarding Koepka’s disapproval of DeChambeau’s pace of play. There have been subtle comments and social media posts for a couple of years, with DeChambeau at one point mocking Koepka’s physique on display in the body issue of ESPN the Magazine, saying he “didn’t have any abs.” Koepka promptly replied with a tweeted image of his four major championship trophies, captioned, “I am 2 short of a 6 pack!”

“I’ve said it like 10 different times: I’ve never really liked him,” Koepka said of DeChambeau in the run-up to the event.Credit…David Becker/Getty Images

The dispute was a source of occasional drama and consistent amusement among the smaller golf audience. It expanded to a much larger audience this year when footage of a Koepka interview with the Golf Channel from May’s P.G.A. Championship leaked on Twitter. In the video, Koepka loses his train of thought and lets loose a string of expletives as an unaware DeChambeau loudly passes by in his metal spikes. The video racked up 10 million views on Twitter before it was removed, and the image of Koepka’s eye-rolling annoyance became a meme.

The video ignited a summer of back-and-forth between the two, with fans getting in on it, too. Security at the Memorial Tournament in June occasionally approached fans shouting “Brooks-y!” near DeChambeau. The PGA Tour said that security was informed of the heckling but that DeChambeau did not request the tour to remove fans from the grounds. Koepka responded to the development that night with a video offering free beer from his sponsor to any fans whose stay was “cut short.” The jeer then became a staple wherever DeChambeau played, leading to Jay Monahan, the PGA Tour commissioner, saying in August that it would be classified as “harassing behavior” under the tour’s fan code of conduct and not be tolerated.

“It’s disgusting the way the guy has tried to knock me down,” DeChambeau said during promotional interviews for the match. “There’s no need for it in the game of golf. He’s just tried to knock me down at every angle, every avenue. For what reason, I don’t know.”

DeChambeau continued, offering one reason: that Koepka may be motivated by benefiting from the tour’s Player Impact Program. The program distributes a $40 million bonus pool to 10 players based on a number of metrics, including popularity in Google searches. The feud, and Koepka’s pinpoint comments and social media tactics, certainly boosted both players’ profiles this year.

Koepka reiterated his distaste for his opponent during the run-up to this match, adding, “I’ve said it like 10 different times: I’ve never really liked him.” There is an authentic dislike and irritation there, even if a made-for-TV match heavy on commercial breaks felt like a reductive attempt to display and resolve that.

There were several charitable components to the match, and the overall series of matches had donated $30 million to various charities before this week’s edition. But this was a more commercial endeavor, hyped around a competitive beef. A lush green golf course with ornate man-made waterfalls set aside the Las Vegas Strip in the middle of the desert was an apt venue. Various one-liners and moments from their feud were emblazoned on Koepka’s cart with his beer sponsor. There were closest-to-the-hole side competitions sponsored by a sports book, a private jet company, an automobile and a recruiting service, and a long-drive challenge sponsored by a bank.

“It’s disgusting the way the guy has tried to knock me down,” DeChambeau said leading up to the matchup.Credit…David Becker/Getty Images

Frustrations about a “long-drive challenge” most likely started this beef, more so than any publicized tweet or putting green confrontation. It was at the 2019 P.G.A. Championship that DeChambeau felt flustered by the major championship style of golf, where Koepka had so excelled. “If you really want to prove who the best champion is, it’s not a long-drive contest,” DeChambeau told the Golf Channel about the Bethpage course setup. “That’s why they have long-drive contests out here. It’s about precision. So when you start making it really tight, I get the tight part. But when you start lengthening it to the amounts that they’ve been lengthening it to, I just personally think that it’s a mess-up.”

DeChambeau argued against major championship setups that simply use length as the primary test and defense of the course. “That tests the best ball-striker,” he said then in May 2019. “That’s what majors are supposed to be about. It’s not supposed to be a driving contest.”

Koepka won his fourth major that week at Bethpage. DeChambeau, who walked away frustrated, would soon undergo a complete body transformation that made him the PGA Tour’s driving distance leader the last two years, and a major champion at last fall’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot in New York.

The match was nothing like that crucible of a major that both have won, but Koepka will walk away with some form of bragging rights that will certainly provide more social media fodder.

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