To: The United States Golf Association
From: Kevin Van Valkenburg, ESPN senior writer (current 8.8 Index)
Greetings to all my friends and fellow golf obsessives (golf nerds?) at the USGA! I hope this finds you well. I realize this is an extremely busy time for the organization, what with the 121st playing of America’s national championship starting Thursday in La Jolla, Calif. The week of the U.S. Open really is one of the most enjoyable (and sadistic) entries on the sports calendar. You’re probably busy dumping about a million gallons of water into the rough at Torrey Pines and making sure the grass looks like a fur coat made out of Wookiee skin. Or is today the day you take a potato peeler to the greens until they possess the firmness of a bowling lane?
But before you finalize things, I was wondering if you’ll grant us one last-minute request. (Bet you can guess it.)
Don’t overthink this, OK?
Don’t wring your hands or offer excuses about how the U.S. Open is bigger than any individual matchup, that it would be in poor taste to encourage scenes of Brooks rolling his eyes every time Bryson tries to calibrate the air density. Don’t offer up a poem or video essay that attempts to remind us, with an aristocratic air, that golf has a history of honorable, gentlemanly behavior, not so casually implying that tossing Brooks and Bryson into the same threesome might cheapen the first two rounds of America’s national championship.
Your brand is chaos, USGA.
Admit it: You love messy drama. You love meltdowns and tantrums and double bogeys. Your ethos is the best players in the world whining about the unfairness of the setup, claiming you’ve lost the course, then storming to the parking lot, slamming trunks and blowing off all interviews. One of the greatest players of this era, Phil Mickelson, is more famous for melting down in your championship than he would be if he’d emerged victorious in any one of them.
Every major has its own identity, and it’s time you dropped the haughty pretense and leaned into yours. You’re the Joker, watching the world burn with a painted smile on your face.
Why not embrace it and give us (at least) two rounds of appointment viewing? Here’s the thing: I’m fairly certain golf doesn’t yet grasp how fun it would be, over the next decade, if two of the best players of this era openly loathed one another and forced fans to choose sides. Brooks and Bryson squabbling over the past month on social media has been a gift to the sport, dragging it (just a little) out of the hoity-toity country club and into the parking lot.
Golf execs, in their corporate boardrooms, are always talking about “growing the game.” Well, here is an opportunity to do exactly that, to bring in a new audience eager to obsess over every sneer, every fist pump, every exasperated sigh, and turn them into a shareable GIF. Embracing the feud — playing it up! — would be a complete no-brainer if golf didn’t have a lengthy history of being afraid of its own shadow when it comes to this kind of thing.
Can you imagine if the NBA handled rivalries the way golf does? Michael Jordan and Larry Bird lived to torment their opponents. What if the league had decided to make sure they never played against anyone they trash-talked? In that alternate universe, the clip of Kyrie Irving stomping on the Boston Celtics logo wouldn’t have provided us with three days of delightful talk show and Twitter fodder; it would have been wiped from the internet. Anyone sharing it would immediately receive a copyright complaint. That’s how golf treated the video of Brooks rolling his eyes and cursing about Bryson and his metal spikes — but only after it received 10 million views in a single day. How could anyone argue with a straight face that it was bad for golf?
“I think it’s good for the game. I really do,” Koepka said last week, when asked about their feud. “The fact that golf’s on pretty much every news outlet for about two weeks pretty consistently, I think that’s a good thing.”
You know who cares about Brooks and Bryson squabbling with each other? People who don’t care about golf, people who don’t know the difference between a gap wedge and a three wood. So often, golf gets buried in its own insular world, it misses easy opportunities to welcome in new fans. (Do you really think we’d still be talking about the PGA Championship if Brooks hadn’t helped leak that video?) Viewers who hadn’t even heard of Brooks Koepka before they watched him roll his eyes have been picking sides and forming allegiances.
In one corner, Team Brooks: We love crushing light beers, playing quickly and pantsing nerds who, we’re convinced, totally deserve it. Brooks is, in our mind, living the dream: winning a half-dozen majors while pretending he doesn’t even have to try that hard. Brooks’ trolling of Bryson is justified in our eyes because — just to be blunt — Bryson is annoying. Brooks injects a much-needed shot of reality into a sport that is historically as soft as Charmin.
In the other — watching perhaps less loudly but just as passionately — is Team Bryson. We love protein shakes and UFO discussions and trying to solve the game of golf like it’s The New York Times’ Sunday crossword. We love the idea of using science to outsmart all the jock bros. Sure, we make every interaction a little more awkward than it needs to be, and we have a weird affection for Kings of Leon songs, but even if we make people cringe, we matter.
To be honest, though, Koepka and DeChambeau are a lot more alike than either one realizes. Both of them love attention and need continuous validation of their methods. Each tries to pretend he is too cool to yearn for affirmation, yet they each seek it out in their own media safe spaces. They both claim they don’t care what anyone else thinks, yet both are extremely online, obviously name-searching in private to find slights, both real and imagined.
Admittedly, it’s not great that Brooks got the #brands involved, promising anyone at The Memorial a case of beer if they were kicked out for heckling Bryson. Everything is worse when it’s turned into a brand activation. But if Bryson really is unnerved by people calling him “Brooksy,” then that’s part of the mountain he needs to climb if he wants to do what Brooks did in 2018, win back-to-back U.S. Open titles. Besides, Bryson has already (somewhat unconvincingly) declared he’s not even mad, you guys!!!
“I think it’s absolutely flattering what they’re doing,” DeChambeau said at the Memorial Tournament, where fans were ejected for shouting Koepka’s name at him. “They can keep calling me that all day if they want to, I’ve got no issue with it. When you look at it, there’s obviously a distraction — to most people they think it’s a distraction, but I grew up learning how to deal with that stuff and I honestly thought it was flattering.”
Look, it’s understandable (although I’d argue, still annoying) that the PGA Tour won’t embrace Brooks vs. Bryson with gusto. Over there, it’s all about the polite post-round handshake, a glass of white wine in the clubhouse and a promise to donate to each other’s charities. That’s admirable! The PGA Tour has a formula it’s comfortable with, and it’s been incredibly successful and generous to a lot of people. Let it own the “everyone here is an honorable gentleman” approach.
But that’s where you come in, USGA: You literally make the rules of the sport. You don’t have to answer to athletes. You can borrow a little from the WWE, now and then, and give the people what we actually want.
Right now, we want them on the first tee at Torrey together — chests puffed out, navigating the nerdiest handshake ever.
It doesn’t even matter who the third member of their group is. Make it Patrick Reed, if you want someone who thrives in uncomfortable situations. Make it Max Homa, if you want someone who could crack jokes and lighten the mood. Make it Jon Rahm, if you want someone to socially distance himself from each of them. Anyone will do.
But don’t lose your nerve, USGA. Be bold and embrace the fun. To heck with anyone who grouses that it’s manufactured. Literally every first-round pairing is manufactured. You’re the same organization that, in 2014, thought it would be funny to pair thicc boys Shane Lowry, Brendon de Jonge and Kevin Stadler together, a memorable trio that Lowry called “a mockery.”
Don’t tell me that pairing up husky golfers is cool, then shy away from delightful mutual animosity.
The last time the U.S. Open was held at Torrey Pines, it gave us one of the most memorable finishes in the history of the tournament. If Tiger Woods can win on this course with a broken leg, surely Brooks or Bryson can be asked to overcome a little awkward silence between shots.
Your move, USGA.