RETURNING TO THE PINNACLE IS ABOUT BROOKS KOEPKA, NOT LIV GOLF
He took dirty Saudi millions out of concern for his career, not raw greed, and as sure as Greg Norman starts chirping, let’s realize Koepka won his fifth major after conquering his health and his mind
If Scotsmen were playing golf in churchyards by the 1400s, it means the game preceded Saudi Arabia on this planet by at least five centuries. Point being, sportswashing is a mere divot in history. No amount of dirty money can buy physical health and mental strength, and that should be grasped by anyone who thinks Brooks Koepka’s triumphant return to the pinnacle Sunday has anything to do with his LIV Golf connection.
That is a direct missive to Greg Norman, frontman for the Saudis and their bastardization of the sport. He quickly was firing tweets after Koepka won the PGA Championship, his first major title in four years. “Congrats, @BKoepka your comeback has been impressive. I am so proud of you,” Norman wrote minutes after he lifted the Wanamaker Trophy. “As for the @livgolf_league players, they belong and the Majors and golf knows.”
Can we toss the so-called Great White Shark into the ocean and see if an orca will eat his liver? Harsh? Nah. He works for killers, after all.
Yes, Koepka was among those who took the bribes of LIV Golf, funded by the Saudis’ sovereign wealth fund. They hoped the practice of buying players for preposterous amounts would lead to forgiveness about those, um, murders and human rights abuses. We’ve neither forgiven nor forgotten, of course. No money-grab spell of amnesia is possible in any examination of a twisted tale.
But let’s not forget this: The world knew about Koepka and his thunderous skill long before he fled to the dark side. He swaggered like a bully and spoke his mind, as a large personality in a football player’s body, and when he won four majors over three seasons, no one was feared more. How many more did he have in him? Was he already a historic great? All that stopped him were injuries, including a dislocated right knee, followed by a self-quack attempt to pop it into place at home. In the clumsy process, he shattered his kneecap and ruptured his medial patellofemoral ligament. The great was a gimp.
He didn’t jump to LIV out of greed and activism, like Phil Mickelson. Or for a simpler life, like Dustin Johnson. Koepka was frightened that his dominant days were over, evident on the Netflix series “Full Swing,” when he revealed a bout with depression and told his wife and family members, “I have to figure out how to get the f— out of this thing before it’s too late.” He thought the game had bypassed him in the form of emerging star Scottie Scheffler, admitting at the 2022 Masters, “I'll be honest with you, I can't compete with these guys, week in, week out. A guy like Scottie, he can shoot 63 every day. I don't know.”
So if anyone can be pardoned for departing the PGA Tour and pocketing a reported $100 million, it’s Koepka. He thought he was finished, crippled for life. “You know, my leg was sideways and out,” he said, explaining how the kneecap shattered when he snapped the foot back in. Ask Tiger Woods what happens to a good walk when the body doesn’t cooperate. In his early 30s, Koepka needed an insurance policy for the rest of life, preferring not to join LIV but knowing his health issues might not allow another ample payday on the traditional tour.
No matter the initials of his affiliated organization, he is re-established now as a generational talent, one-upping Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth and those who were supposed to rule golf into this decade. Rather, it’s Koepka who will duel Jon Rahm and Scheffler. Even with his drought, Koepka has won five of the last 22 majors. Only Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Nick Faldo and Ben Hogan have won as many quicker in the modern era. He has as many majors as Byron Nelson and Seve Ballesteros. Consider this: He stands only one behind Mickelson, the LIV bullhorn, among active players.
“I’m not even sure I dreamed of it as a kid, that I’d win that many,” he said.
Having overcome his mind and body, Koepka can dream wildly, calling this victory his “most meaningful” of all. “To look back to where we were two years ago, I’m so happy right now,” he said after outlasting Scheffler and Viktor Hovland. “This is just the coolest thing. It feels damned good. Yeah, this one is definitely special … with everything that’s gone on, all the crazy stuff over the last few years.”
He’ll have to proceed amid more crossfire between LIV and the PGA Tour, a blood war that won’t be ending anytime soon. Koepka is the first LIV golfer to win a major, which only will embolden Norman and the Saudis, who think it’s about them when they’re just bystanders. They’ll bark that LIV has had three players with top-10 finishes in the last two majors, but the project remains a carnival charade with smallish audiences on the CW network. Among Norman’s tweets Sunday night was his earlier quote that the reduced LIV schedule helps players perform better in majors: “One hundred percent. The health and wellness of the family of LIV players were paramount to me. … They needed time away, but they wanted events leading into each major to help them prep.”
You know what’s coming. Koepka will face pressure to return to the PGA Tour, from inside and outside the sport, now that his starpower can translate into revenue and TV ratings. If he decided to come back, how will the Saudis view him after he and his younger brother, Chase, took their cash? Wisely, he is focused on himself, starting with a shot at his third U.S. Open title next month in Los Angeles. As he controlled the final round at Oak Hill Country Club, there were few boos in the gallery. The fans chanted his name as if they didn’t know about Saudis.
“I definitely think it helps LIV, but I’m more interested in my own self right now, to be honest,” Koepka said. “Yeah, it’s a huge thing for LIV, but I’m out here competing as an individual at the PGA Championship. I’m just happy to take this home for the third time.”
It should surprise no one that Koepka’s LIV stablemates were mouthing off. Bryson DeChambeau, no longer the hulking drinker of protein shakes and who knows what else, chirped after finishing tied for fourth: “It validates everything we've said from the beginning: That we're competing at the highest level and we have the ability to win major championships. I really hope people can see the light now that we're trying to provide the game of golf with something new and fresh. I think at the end of the day, both sides are going to have to come together at some point. It's for the good of the game.”
LIV events resemble junior-varsity junk. Even with Koepka’s presence, why would viewers watch without any attempt at sophistication? “Clearly, it's untrue," DeChambeau said. “I’ve always said the truth will come out eventually. Truth always plays its way out and it is. We've got a lot of great players out there, and I think people need to start looking at the brighter side of things that we're trying to do something good for the game.”
The Saudis will be giving him a bonus for his phony words. Same with Cameron Smith, winner of last year’s Open Championship, who said after tying for ninth, “We're still out there. We haven't (forgotten) how to play golf. We're all great golfers out there, and we know what we can do, and I think that's what we're trying to do.”
Mickelson, too, made threats about the ongoing grudge. Maybe he should focus on his game, at 52, after finishing 10 over par. It’s clear his biggest objective is tormenting the PGA Tour, acknowledging his recent meeting with investigators from the U.S. Department of Justice, along with DeChambeau and Sergio Garcia. “I guess it’s because I know some things that others don’t,” Mickelson said. “I just want to make sure everybody’s held accountable. I know a lot of stuff that will come out later.” This from a man whose gambling losses — estimated at $40 million in the early 2010s — might have been greater than reported. This from a man accused by the Securities and Exchange Commission of using a stock tip to erase a $1 million gambling debt. This from a man who reportedly was stiffed for $500,000 in gambling winnings by a Detroit mobster.
The Mafia. The Saudis. Dangerous territory.
But golf — anyone remember golf? — still can rise above the slime and charm us. How about Michael Block, the head pro at a public course in southern California, who charges $150 for a one-hour lesson? He swung a 7-iron on No. 15 and scored the most magical hole-in-one imaginable, with the ball sailing into the cup without hitting the stick. He didn’t know he’d scored an ace until informed by McIlroy, his playing partner.
“I’m like, ‘Why is Rory giving me a hug?’ ’’ Block said. “Rory gives me a hug for hitting it 3, 4, 5 feet? That's weird. I'm like, ‘I think I just made it.’ ’’
“Yeah, it went in the hole,” McIlroy said. "Right in the hole.”
Thanks to the miracle, Block finished in a tie for 15th and qualified for the PGA Championship next year. All four days, he shot 71 or better. He’ll have sponsor exemptions this year and probably will get a phone call from …
Please. No. Don’t go until the PGA Tour counters. Let us cherish one pure golfing moment before Brooks Koepka navigates the strangest of fairways, greatness on one side and the Saudis on the other.
Jay Mariotti, called “without question the most impacting Chicago sportswriter of the past quarter-century,’’ writes general sports columns for Substack while appearing on some of the 1,678,498 podcasts and shows in production today. He is an accomplished columnist, TV panelist and talk/podcast host. Living in Los Angeles, he gravitated by osmosis to film projects.