If Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy wasn’t a rivalry, Koepka just made it one

October 16, 2019

Brooks Koepka is doing that thing he does again.

On Wednesday in the lead-up to the CJ Cup in South Korea, Koepka was asked about his budding rivalry with Rory McIlroy — and made it clear he doesn’t think much of it.

“I’ve been out here for, what, five years. Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I just don’t view it as a rivalry,” Koepka told the AFP. That wasn’t all.

“I’m not looking at anybody behind me,” he added. “I’m No. 1 in the world. I’ve got open road in front of me and I’m not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don’t see it as a rivalry.

“You know if the fans do (call it a rivalry), then that’s on them and it could be fun. Look, I love Rory, he’s a great player and he’s fun to watch, but it’s just hard to believe there’s a rivalry in golf. I just don’t see it.”

This is Koepka’s go-to recipe. It’s a big batch of dismissiveness mixed with a high dose of confidence plus one not-so-subtle dig.

Think about the fun pseudo-controversies Koepka has gotten his way into. The first was his obsession with being snubbed by the media, which he tried to disguise with a bunch of quotes about actually not caring at all about being snubbed by the media. There was a months-long back-and-forth with Brandel Chamblee, which included clown-nose Photoshops and Twitter digs while Koepka made it clear all the while he gave no weight to Chamblee’s opinion, anyway.

There was the slow-play kerfuffle with Bryson DeChambeau, who eventually confronted Koepka at the Northern Trust. Koepka brushed that off, too, saying he hadn’t really targeted DeChambeau (despite calling his slow play “embarrassing” earlier in the season). And there’s the dismissive way he talks about practice and preparation, namely that he doesn’t need to practice and he doesn’t need to show up more than 45 minutes before his tee time.

The thing is, Koepka has backed up all of these with his play. He was right that the media wasn’t paying him proper attention. He made Chamblee’s remarks seem foolish and shortsighted. And Koepka really doesn’t appear to need much of a warmup — or a practice routine — to take down the world’s very best players.

But this time, with McIlroy, has a chance to be different. Koepka’s right, so far, to be dismissive. He’s the unquestioned World No. 1 and he’s owned the majors, demonstrating an ability to turn on his best game when he wants to. Still, this is Rory McIlroy we’re talking about, the best player to have emerged since Tiger Woods. While Koepka has complimented McIlroy’s game repeatedly, it’s clear he doesn’t think the two are on the same plane. By declaring “no rivalry,” Koepka could be kicking a bee’s nest — and stirring up a rivalry in the process. Maybe that’s just what he wants.

But it’s exactly what McIlroy wants, too. McIlroy has long spoken of a desire for more motivating factors, and he rarely gets any sort of shade thrown his way. Take a look back at East Lake, when McIlroy admitted he built up the rivalry in his mind looking for a win and “a little bit of revenge” over Koepka.

“He talked about trying to be the dominant player in the game and that was said to me in the media and I said, ‘He’s going to have to go through me first,'” he said.

Then McIlroy came from behind to win the Tour Championship, and the $15 million FedEx Cup prize, and PGA Tour Player of the Year. McIlroy’s no World No. 1 — but he is No. 2. That’s a pretty good start for any rivalry, no matter what Koepka thinks.