No sooner had Brooks Koepka tied the ribbon on his fifth major title than the vexed question of his professional allegiance reared its head once more. In the cosy confines of the Golf Channel studio, Brad Faxon, among the mildest-mannered figures you could hope to meet in the game, made the point that a man who had won the USPGA three times in six years should, by any conventional logic, be a shoo-in for the Ryder Cup. “They’re not playing for money,” he said. “They’re playing for their country.”
Except Brandel Chamblee, a pundit who has volubly opposed Koepka’s alignment with LIV Golf and all that the Saudi-backed breakaway stands for, shot down the suggestion with thinly-veiled contempt. “They’re not playing for their tour?” he replied, incredulously. “There’s certainly a sense that the Europeans are playing for their tour.” “They’re playing golf,” Faxon deadpanned, before the pair engaged in an awkward death stare.
It was a perfect illustration of the insoluble schism that an injection of vast Saudi riches has wrought. On the one side, you have those who regard LIV as an irredeemably debased enterprise, tainting everybody and everything it touches. On the other, there are those championing the prerogative of the finest golfers, as independent contractors, to tee up on whichever tour gives them the greatest financial benefit. And in the middle you have somebody such as Faxon, who initially expressed unease about LIV’s pilfering of talent but who now regards the calls for Koepka to be eligible for the Ryder Cup as misplaced.
Faxon’s argument has merit. The PGA of America, under whose auspices the Ryder Cup falls, are unlikely to be too enthused by the idea of Koepka, who has claimed as many majors as Seve Ballesteros and in less time, sitting out this autumn’s contest in Rome, where Zach Johnson’s team are desperate to seize a first victory on European soil for 30 years. This is an occasion that has traditionally been about pitching the best against the best, and where home advantage is fiendishly difficult to overturn due to the strength of national pride on display.
The Ryder Cup, as Faxon highlights, is one realm that should have nothing to do with money. He played in 1997, witnessing at first hand the hurricane of Spanish passion that Ballesteros generated as captain at Valderrama. Why, when set against this standard, should Koepka be excluded? He is the most in-form player on the planet, having led both majors so far this season. He flourishes under maximum pressure, impervious – as he showed all too vividly at Oak Hill – to any hostility from the crowd. He has the pedigree to persuade Johnson to make him his first wildcard pick, even if the Official World Golf Ranking lists him, due to a refusal to recognise LIV, at a mere 13th in the standings.
Still, Chamblee will not hear of it. He perceives Koepka as complicit in a nefarious project, as a willing pawn for the Saudi regime, who should accept the consequences of making such a diabolical pact. At LIV’s inception, I could sympathise with this perspective. After all, the Saudis were not simply making an investment in golf, but attempting the aggressive annexation of an entire sport. Both the PGA Tour and DP World Tour moved quickly in blacklisting the rebels, conscious they needed to protect the integrity of their businesses. But at what point does such a position cease being principled, and more foolish and self-defeating?
With the Koepka situation, you could say that this moment has been reached. For whatever happens from here, the only victim is the Ryder Cup itself. If he is excluded, then the competition loses its right to be celebrated as the ultimate duel in golf. But equally, if a loophole is created for the American LIV renegades to take part, the instalment in Rome threatens to be hopelessly lopsided. The Europeans have already ripped out the spiritual heart of their team, by sidelining Lee Westwood, Sergio Garcia, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey and Henrik Stenson indefinitely for chasing the Saudi riyal. If the Americans choose a different path, including Koepka alongside their galaxy of young stars, the imbalance of power could be frightening.
It is understandable that the DP World Tour cracked down as hard as they did on the rebels. Ultimately, Westwood et al were refused releases to compete in the first two LIV events but played in them regardless. Such defiance was crying out to be punished. But you cannot help but wonder if, by extending this hardline stance to the Ryder Cup, the Europeans could wind up shooting themselves in the foot. Should Koepka play, the match at the Marco Polo Club in September starts to look absurdly uneven. It would be a high price to pay for politicising an event supposed to represent the very opposite of self-interest. For over a year, LIV has stoked so much outrage in golf. And yet some Americans are, judging by Faxon’s remarks, beginning to experience a certain outrage fatigue. And if that means giving Koepka a free pass, it can only play to their advantage.
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