New Innings: Bryson DeChambeau to square off against bete noire Brooks Koepka at ‘The Match’

End of another pandemic-affected year, and start of the 2021-22 season. Things are looking up.

New Innings: Bryson DeChambeau to square off against bete noire Brooks Koepka at ‘The Match’
Bryson DeChambeau and Brooks Koepka will square off against each other at 'The Match.'

I’ve always liked Matthew Wolff. You know the man I’m talking about—by golf swing, if not by name. Yep, that’s him, possessor of the wildest-looking action since Adam Sandler hopped, skipped and smashed the Happy Gilmore swing into popular imagination. Except that Wolff is a PGA Tour player who won more than a million dollars by the time he turned 21 with multiple wins under his belt. His golf swing does take all the attention, and it is, as usually is the case, an excellent insight into the man himself—unique, self-assured, and not afraid to go it alone. More than that, what I noticed first about Wolff (after the novelty of his swing had passed), was how, unlike so many pros, he had varied interests outside golf.

Football for example. Now, something as innocuous as checking the scores of your favourite NFL team shouldn’t make the news but it did when Wolff did it in 2020. We were astonished not because Wolff had football on his mind during a tournament he was playing in, not even because he was the leader after 54 holes, and about to tee off on the final day when this happened. What made the moment unbelievable was that it was the US Open, and possibly the biggest day in Wolff’s young career. ‘What is this guy made of,’ we wondered.

More than a year later, Wolff has been through the grinder that life on a professional golf circuit can put a player through. For over 15 months after finishing second at the 2020 US Open, Wolff failed to finish in the top-10 and was even disqualified from The Masters Tournament for singing a wrong scorecard. In February 2021, Wolff imploded with an opening 83, withdrew from the next event, shook his head and announced he was taking a break from the game. “When things aren’t going your way, it’s hard to put things in perspective. But you’ve just gotta be happy. If you’re not enjoying yourself and if you’re not happy, it doesn’t matter how much money you’re making or what you do, it’s probably not worth doing it. So I’m just trying to find what makes me happy,” he told the world in February.

Last month Wolff drilled a 35-footer on the 36th hole to make the cut at the Sanderson Championship on the PGA Tour and then made a charge on the weekend to finish tied-17th. Buoyed by that performance he went on to notch two top-5s in a row—finishing second, and tied-fifth at the Shriner’s Children Open and the WTC Mayakoba in consecutive weeks. After returning to the Tour at the US Open in June this year, he’s had a nondescript season, but this is the first time we’ve seen a return of form of the kind we expect from the former 12th-ranked player in the world. “The last six months have been really difficult for me. I think the biggest thing I’ve learnt is that I have the ability to be happy even when I don’t play well,” Wolff told Golf Channel. “Even last weekend I shot 3-over when I had the lead. I was able to look back at that round and learn from it see what I could have done better. I told myself that even though I didn’t play well, I had a good time out there.” Pros have a pretty rough time out there—regularly getting their teeth knocked in, and then getting up and moving on, before it happens again. It’s no small measure of his early success that despite the hiatus Wolff is still ranked 31st in the world. You’ve got to hand it to the kid—he’s back on track.

What I’m really looking forward to this month isn’t a regular PGA Tour event, but rather the fifth edition of ‘The Match,’ this time featuring, you guessed it, Bryson DeChambeau and his bete noire, Brooks Koepka. For those who may not have heard, these two have had an ongoing feud for over two years now since Koepka criticised DeChambeau for slow play in 2019. There were some murmurs that perhaps the entire spat was a marketing gimmick to promote something on the lines of, well, ‘The Match.’ I’m not so sure that’s the case: the mutual disdain between the two players seemed genuine enough. Either way, there’s plenty of interest in this built-for-viewership, televised duel between two of the game’s biggest stars, and, longest hitters—it really doesn’t get bigger than this.

I hate to play devil’s advocate, but from whatever we’ve seen in the past from this event, the hype always outperforms what transpires. The Match has been, by and large, The Damp Squib.

Even the famous rivalry appears to be thawing after the two players were teammates on the winning Ryder Cup squad. “I sat down and had dinner with him last night, and it was fine,” DeChambeau said during the event. “I think there may be something up here moving forward, but won’t speak too much more on that.”

Oh dear. My only hope is that these two don’t choose ‘The Match’ to be gracious and friendly. That’s what must be on the sponsors’ minds as well after the two shared a seemingly reconciliatory handshake after the Ryder Cup. ‘The Match’ will take place, quite inscrutably, over 12 holes rather than a full round on November 26 in Las Vegas. Tune in, but don’t hold your breath.

A golfer, Meraj Shah also writes about the game

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First published on: 14-11-2021 at 05:30 IST