Koepka & McIlroy Rivalry is Enthralling Prospect
From Ali-Frazier to Hunt-Lauda and Federer-Nadal, rivalries have defined generations in sport, providing added emotional investment for the viewer and sustenance for the headline writers. Golf has lacked that compelling duality for decades, but the recent Tour Championship and present standing of the world rankings have laid the foundations of a long yearned for rivalry at the top of the ancient game.
Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy is exactly what we have been waiting for.
The battles that Jack Nicklaus had with Tom Watson and Lee Trevino remain iconic, the Golden Bear’s early jousts with Arnold Palmer were for the heart of American golf, spanning decades across the course and boardroom. Nick Faldo and Greg Norman were arguably the most recent true rivalry in the men’s game, contrasting personalities competing for the majors, a battle that the Englishman dominated, culminating in dramatic fashion at the 1996 Masters.
Ultimately, Tiger Woods was too far ahead of the rest to have a considered rival, despite the best efforts of Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh, and – especially – Ernie Els around the turn of the century. There was a time when David Duval was seen as possibly being that guy, but his career tailed off markedly after winning the 2001 Open Championship.
But this feels different. The latter stages of the PGA Tour season offered a glimpse of what Koepka and McIlroy could deliver. And there is more than a sense that they know it too.
In July, paired in the final round of the World Golf Championship in Memphis, the American bludgeoned the Northern Irishman by six shots to overturn a narrow deficit and comfortably secure the title, tightening his formidable grip as the alpha male on tour.
Seeing off Rory in that decisive manner was perhaps the biggest victory, underlining Koepka’s earned status as a cold-hearted killer on the golf course, the gunslinger claiming his latest bounty.
At East Lake, a similar scenario was laid out with the FedEx Cup on the line. Here, it was McIlroy who outdrew Brooks, shooting 66 to make a statement of his own, Koepka becoming a mere spectator on the back-nine as Rory pocketed the $15m bonus. Though somehow, despite those riches, the most valuable prize of the day was the reversal of what had happened a month earlier.
“I think it (playing with Koepka) just gives me a little bit of an extra incentive,” the 30-year-old said. “Once I saw I was in the final group with Brooks, it just took me back to Memphis a few weeks ago, and I felt like I learned a few lessons that day. I wanted to right some of the wrongs, and it was a good opportunity to do it.
“Brooks went out there in Memphis and shot 65 and just basically dominated the tournament, dominated me. And I realized if I want to become the dominant player in the world again, I need to be more like that. I need to -- I guess that's the ultimate compliment I can give Brooks is today I wanted to be a little bit more like him.”
It’s easy to see why. The 29-year-old has won four of the last ten majors he entered, finishing runner-up in two others. McIlroy, for all his undeniable brilliance, has underperformed in the historic championships lately, notably missing the cut at Royal Portrush in the most meaningful of them all.
However, the prowess of Rory is not something that escapes Brooks. “Like I've said multiple times, he's the most fun to watch when he's playing well. He hits it so good, he putts it really well, and when he's on, man, he's tough to beat,” said Koepka.
Nonetheless, our fixation on the four grand slam events threatened to overshadow a spectacular year for the former world number one. In 19 PGA Tour starts, the Ulsterman finished in the top ten in a staggering 14 of them, including beating arguably the strongest field to win The Players Championship at Sawgrass. His 61 at the Canadian Open was a breathtaking display that reminded us of McIlroy at his most supreme.
Indeed, statistically, Rory produced one of the finest seasons on record, leading the scoring average. Week-in week-out, no one played better than the Holywood lad, but Koepka did it when more eyes were paying attention. Readdressing that imbalance between the two makes for a fascinating dynamic as we begin the lengthy countdown to the Masters in April.
But what makes the promise of a Koepka and McIlroy rivalry so appetising – and there are many other players who could break that spell – is the manner in which they go about things. Both are the archetypical modern professionals, physically athletic and powerful off the tee, but refreshingly playing at a brisk pace, making them highly watchable.
More than that, the two are outspoken, unafraid to express themselves candidly in the press, a rare commodity in these modern, carefully PR managed times. Don’t underestimate the importance of that factor.
Roughly the same age, there are similarities between them, they both have four majors for one thing, but there are differences within their respective backgrounds. Rory was the prodigy destined to become the best, fulfilling that promise by trouncing the field at the U.S. Open as a 22-year-old. It didn’t take McIlroy long to get to where he expected.
Whereas Brooks was plying his trade on the Challenge Tour across Europe and beyond at that time of life, an unusual path for a young American golfer, but a deeply formative and character building one, making a gradual progression before his stunning explosion on the biggest stages.
Ranked number one and two in the world, the platform is there for these two giants to dominate the headlines throughout the coming months into 2020, but major blows need to be exchanged for a rivalry to matter.
Despite what the PGA Tour’s hype machine would have you believe, the Green Jacket and Claret Jug are more important than the FedEx Cup, these championships are where legends are made, careers defined, rivalries remembered. Combining for eight majors, Koepka and McIlroy have already achieved more than most, but there is more space in their trophy rooms.
Having that other to compete against, the genuine peer to compare themselves to, sharing the same lane together may prove to be that extra motivation in the race for all-time greatness.
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