Brooks Koepka took umbrage with the golfing media’s coverage of recent comments that team sports were “just maybe not in his DNA”, which have snowballed into public questioning of his commitment to Team USA and the Ryder Cup.
The four-times major champion, in his first public remarks since suffering a wrist injury at the Tour Championship three weeks ago, spent a good chunk of Thursday morning’s pre-tournament press conference at Whistling Straits addressing the blowback from a Golf Digest interview in which he described Ryder Cup week as hectic and “a bit odd” because he is forced to break from his individual routine and given no time to decompress.
“I never said it was negative,” Koepka said. “I said it was different. Like I said, I’ve never played any of these team events [before turning pro]. I didn’t play Walker Cup. Never played Junior Ryder Cup. Never played anything. I just said it’s different. That doesn’t mean it’s bad. Y’all spun it that way.” The 31-year-old went on to insist: “I wouldn’t be nervous on that first tee if I didn’t care.”
On the status of his frosty relationship with his US teammate Bryson DeChambeau, Koepka was notably shorter. “We’re on the same team together,” he said. “We’ve had dinner almost every night as a team. I got here Monday and everyone in the team is interacting, everybody is participating in conversations and doing everything we need to do.” The contrast between the Americans’ self-defeating individualism and the Europeans’ team spirit remains the oldest chestnut around this biennial event but like most stereotypes there is at least a kernel of truth to it.
How else to explain why the side that routinely comes in with the superior players has won only two of nine Ryder Cups this century – and five of 17 going back to 1985? This year’s showdown along the windy, western shores of Lake Michigan, which was put back by a year because of the pandemic, is no different.
Steve Stricker’s 12-man team includes 10 of the world’s top 13 players while Europe boasts only the top-ranked Jon Rahm. As hosts the US will enjoy the familiar advantage of being able to cater the setup of the 7,500-yard track to their strengths and a magnified edge in crowd support due to Covid-19 travel restrictions on European-based spectators.
This dissonance is at the essence of what makes Ryder Cups such absorbing theatre and it has seemed to find a fresh symbol in Koepka, one of the veterans on a US team featuring six rookies, the most for the Americans since 2008 when they won at Valhalla.
“It’s tough,” Koepka told Golf Digest. “There are times where I’m like, ‘I won my match. I did my job. What do you want from me?’ I know how to take responsibility for the shots I hit every week. Now, somebody else hit a bad shot and left me in a bad spot, and I know this hole is a loss. That’s new, and you have to change the way you think about things. You go from an individual sport all the time to a team sport one week a year.”
Those remarks got the attention of Paul Azinger, the former US team captain turned NBC pundit who openly questioned whether Koepka should be a part of the team.
“I’m not sure he loves the Ryder Cup that much, if he doesn’t love it he should relinquish his spot and get people there who do love it,” Azinger said during a conference call last week. “Not everybody embraces it. But if you don’t love it, and you’re not sold out, then I think Brooks – especially being hurt – should consider whether or not he really wants to be there. And if you add the Bryson [DeChambeau] dynamic to that, that would be an even easier decision for him.”
But Koepka, who has played on the last two Ryder Cup teams and competed on an injured ankle in the 2016 US PGA Championship in order to qualify, was clearly frustrated on Thursday with how those remarks were framed by the media.
“I can only do my job and then y’all report, or whatever, your opinion or side might be,” Koepka said. “You guys spun it negatively, so it’s going to trickle to the fans because you guys are kind of our only outlet besides social media. So it’s how you guys take it and spin it and you guys put it negatively.
“So whatever they think will be off what they read, whether you write an article or whatever you’re doing. They read that stuff. So if it’s your guys’ opinion, they’re going to take that side a little bit more.”
The most common answer to Europe’s improbable run of success is familiarity with the format. Alternate shot is the game of choice on Saturday mornings on courses from Ireland to Spain. Compare that to the chest-pounding American egos that get US pairs fighting over whose sponsor’s ball to use in foursomes.
Koepka only lent credence to the theory on Thursday, admitting the first time he played a foursomes match was at Hazeltine five years ago.
“I didn’t play on any teams growing up,” Koepka said. “So this is like the first time I’ve done the team thing other than college. I’ve never played alternate shots until I got here. Some of the guys probably have that luxury because they played Walker Cup and stuff like that, so they might have a better idea. I like it. It’s fun. It’s different. It’s just tough to kind of build a rhythm.
“You hit one good shot and you’re going to wait 15 minutes before you hit the next one. At the end of the day, it’s just who plays better.”