Koepka, Wolff clash highlights team conflict in golf

Koepka, Wolff clash highlights team conflict in golf
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DORAL, Fla. – For all the bells and whistles of LIV Golf – the shotgun starts, the first-tee DJ and the general mayhem of “golf, but louder” – it’s the transactional element of team golf that separates and defines the second-year league.

The promotions and relegations and trades and free agency that will begin following Sunday’s final round of the circuit’s team championship, will allow the league to tap into something that’s been missing in golf – the transaction. But there’s another side of team golf, however unintended, that’s created an entirely new dynamic in what has always been a supremely selfish sport.

For the first time in his career, Brooks Koepka’s relative success or failure is dependent on others and the Smash GC captain discovered this season the unique challenges of leadership.

Other than a runner-up finish at LIV’s event in Orlando, Florida, in the spring – which was fueled primarily by Koepka’s individual victory – Smash GC struggled in 2023 and begins this week’s team championship at Doral eighth out of 12 teams. It’s the type of mediocrity that haunts players like Koepka and in July his frustration boiled over when he told Sports Illustrated that he had “basically given up” on teammate Matthew Wolff, a criticism that Wolff later said was “heartbreaking.” The verbal assault continued last week at the LIV event in Saudi Arabia when Koepka told reporters, “There’s only three of us on our [four-man] team.”

There have been times when it’s felt as if Koepka is punching down, like the way he shrugged off questions about his decision to pair Wolff with Chase Koepka, Brooks’ brother who has also struggled this season, for the Day 1 foursomes match at the finale.

“Wolff, going to foursomes, I think he probably knew that that was coming. It will be interesting to see what happens,” Brooks Koepka shrugged.

But even in the age of enlightened athlete mental health, any criticism of the captain ignores the complexities of a team and Koepka claimed this week that he has tried to help Wolff.

Koepka has been a harsh critic of his Smash GC teammate Wolff.

“I’ve spent the majority of the beginning of the year trying to help and trying to figure that out. But I think it’s past its point. I’ve tried. I’ve been very open with it, and sometimes you can’t help people that don’t want help,” Koepka said.

The very public disconnect between Koepka and Wolff is the most glaring example of how LIV Golf has altered the landscape between players, and even though every player interviewed for this article could empathize with Wolff’s challenges, there was a very real understanding of the captain’s frustrations.

“I think Brooks did a really good job of putting that out in the public, which I don’t think that’s how you handle it, but what’s funny is there’s other real sports that make a lot of money and that’s the way it’s handled,” Harold Varner III, a member of the RangeGoats team, said.

“Think about what happens when other players get mad. They get pissed and go to the media. [Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver] Ja’Marr Chase may have the best quarterback on his team (Joe Burrow), his best friend, and he said, ‘I’m always open.’ It’s the same dynamic, it just happens to be golf. I think golfers are very soft. It’s astonishing when you hear someone say they disapprove of something. They always disapproved of it, but they didn’t have the balls to say it out loud or to have to work as a team. In real team sports this happens every day.”

For LIV players who have obviously bought into the team golf concept the interpersonal difficulties of a team room are as much a part of the secret sauce as the trades and free agency that awaits this off-season. If the goal is to drag golf into the world of mainstream sports the Koepka-Wolff divide is the ugly byproduct.

“It goes to sports and teams. Every sport has fights among teammates,” Charles Howell III, a member of Crushers GC, said. “Now we’re just seeing it in golf because this is the first time we’ve had teams. It won’t be the last one and it’s probably not the only one going on, it might be the only one we know about. It adds another element of team sports.”

It’s that element and the potential for conflict that has dominated LIV Golf’s second season and turned a spotlight on team captains. Accomplished players who are accustomed to a singular and selfish focus now face the uncertainty of divergent personalities.

“I think it’s hard for a guy who has played golf professionally at a very high level for 20 years to worry about someone else,” Varner said.

Wolff declined to comment on his relationship with Koepka and it remains to be seen where he plays next season. He’s under contract to play LIV Golf for one more year but his deal with Smash GC was only for a single season.

Would another captain be able to break through to Wolff, who was among the league’s most coveted free agents last off-season?

RangeGoats GC captain Bubba Watson has been one of the most outspoken supporters of Wolff and is one of the few players who has publicly talked about his own mental health struggles.

“I love Brooks to death. He’s tried everything he possible could to help [Wolff] and [Wolff] just hasn’t accepted that help,” Watson said. “If that approach didn’t work, we need to figure out a different way to help Matt, as a person not as a golfer, from going down that path. I went down that path. Brooks has tried all of that.”

Watson said he reached out to Wolff last week to talk and “just love on him” and he’s not the only captain watching the clash unfold with a distinct curiosity.

“You have to read people differently and go about things differently. I have a lot of respect for Brooks, he’s an amazing golfer and I’m sure he’s a pretty good leader, but how Brooks is, he’s more like old-fashion, like army style, go drop and give me 20 [pushups],” said Kevin Na, the captain of Iron Heads GC.

“That doesn’t work for Matt. Matt’s a guy you motivate by talking to him, getting to know him at an emotional level and why he’s going through this. He’s very insecure for what he’s got, he’s a world-class golfer, good-looking guy, has money. He shouldn’t be but that’s just how he is.”

LIV Golf didn’t create personality conflicts. The PGA Tour is riddled with players who wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t share a tee time, but what team golf has changed is how that animosity is no longer relegated to the shadows.

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