U.S. Open misses golden chance to air Koepka-DeChambeau feud

The United States Golf Association is known to give the people what they want. Which is why for its signature tournament, it grows a rough that a small child dare not enter without a camp counselor and shaves its greens down to boot-camp stubble and in general tries to afflict the most comfortable class of professional athlete.

Sometimes we just like to see these cats with noses bloodied and hair mussed. Please don’t judge us.

But the USGA blew that assignment Tuesday when announcing its Thursday and Friday pairings for this week’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. It opted for propriety over spectacle when it decided to keep Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka – golf’s version of Florida vs. Georgia – as far away from each other as possible.

“They didn’t pair them this week, but I’m sure it will happen soon enough,” said Jordan Spieth. “Seems like people would be interested to watch that.”

If this austere group were in charge of boxing, Ali never would have met Frazier. Godzilla vs. King Kong would have been a love story.

In DeChambeau vs. Koepka, golf has a ready-made rivalry, a perfect conflict of personality and style. At times, their mutual dislike is at a petulant, middle-school level – as when Koepka rolled his eyes and muttered as DeChambeau passed by during a PGA Championship interview. At times it is out of bounds – as when Koepka went to social media offering a case of beer to anyone tossed from the Memorial for heckling DeChambeau. The kind of stuff that is catnip to every other sport.

It would have been so easy and natural. You just put the past three Open winners together in the first and second rounds. That’s DeChambeau (2020) and Koepka (2017 and ’18), with 2019 winner Gary Woodland acting as referee.

Instead we get the riveting grouping of former Georgia Tech player/U.S. Am champ Tyler Strafaci, Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama and DeChambeau going off at 1:14 p.m. Thursday. Has all the makings of a Rotary Club meeting.

As for Koepka, he’ll be matched with a couple of other major winners – Justin Thomas and Collin Morikawa – earlier that in the morning, 7:29 a.m. The time slots are flipped Friday, with DeChambeau going off early and Koepka late. If the two play it right, they’ll never have to see each other at the tournament’s opening, the USGA having issued this virtual restraining order.

The animus seems to be rooted in Koepka’s disdain for the mad science and gobbledygook DeChambeau brings to the course. He’s always come off as a kind of tough-guy minimalist – Koepka once posed for a magazine naked, and you can’t get more minimal than that. While DeChambeau schemes of ways to revolutionize the game, with his uni-length clubs, protein shakes and a swing that is the golfing equivalent of an A-bomb test.

We first became aware of problems in 2019 when Koepka, believing it shouldn’t take as long to launch a golf ball as it does a mission to the space station, carped about DeChambeau’s pace of play.

Koepka has made joking social-media references to the bulked-up DeChambeau and steroids. He mocked DeChambeau for once, unsuccessfully, asking for relief from a nearby anthill. When DeChambeau was announced as Aaron Rodgers’ partner in an coming match against Phil Mickelson and Tom Brady, Koepka tweeted this message to the (current) Packers QB: “Sorry Bro.”

Come to think of it, a lot of energy for this feud seems to be coming from one source. And Koepka has just enough “don’t-give-a-flip” in him to keep it going.

As the brunt of Koepka’s barbs, DeChambeau comes to San Diego in apparent good humor. Even when provocateurs in the gallery yell “Brooksie” his way. “I think it’s hilarious,” DeChambeau told the media Tuesday.

Asked if it bothered him that none of the quipsters in the crowd have called Koepka “Bryson” yet, DeChambeau replied, “No, I’m not worried at all. He’s older than me, and he’s won more majors than me. Hey, I’ve got something to look up to.”

There are, of course, about a hundred other perfectly good stories in this field. Start with the aged wonder Mickelson coming home to seek his elusive U.S. Open title and Jon Rahm’s return from COVID jail, and then go from there.

But the words “golf” and “feud” go together about as unnaturally as “cotillion” and “wedgie.” Thus, the freak factor is high with Koepka and DeChambeau.

The hubbub is a nice distraction from all the whispered reverence in the booth. Said the unblinking Koepka on Tuesday: “I think it’s good for the game. It’s bringing new eyeballs. It’s pretty much been on every news channel. Pretty much everything you look at online, it’s got this in the headline, or it’s up there as a big news story. To me, that’s growing the game. You’re putting it in front of people who probably don’t normally look at golf, don’t play it, might get them involved.”

The USGA blew it. Now it is up to the scoreboard gods to fix this, to get these two up there high and playing together on the weekend when the stakes are their highest.

That would be about as good as golf can get without a steel cage involved.