Koepka and Wolff’s clash highlights the team conflict in golf

DORAL, Fla. – For all that LIV Golf has to offer — the shotgun start, the first DJ and the general mayhem of “golf but louder” — it’s the transactional element of team golf that separates and defines the second annual league.

The promotions and relegations, trades and free agency that will begin after Sunday’s final round of the circuit’s team championship will allow the league to take advantage of something golf has been missing — the deal. But there is another side to team golf, however unintended, that has created a whole new dynamic in what has always been an extremely selfish sport.

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

Aside from a second-place finish at the LIV event in Orlando, Fla., in the spring — which was largely fueled by Koepka’s individual victory — Smash GC has 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 onslaught continued last week at the LIV event in Saudi Arabia, when Koepka told reporters: “There’s only three of us at our [four-man] team.”

There were moments when it felt like Koepka was struggling, such as the way he brushed off questions about his decision to pair Wolff with Chase Koepka, brother of Brooks, who has also struggled this season, for Day’s foursome 1 in the final.

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

But even in the era of enlightened athlete mental health, any criticism of the captain ignores the complexity of the team, and Koepka said this week that he tried to help Wolff.

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

“I spent most of the beginning of the year trying to help and figure this out. But I think it’s already passed. I tried. I was very open about it and sometimes you can’t help people who don’t want help,” Koepka said.

The very public rift between Koepka and Wolff is the starkest example of how LIV Golf has changed the landscape between players, and while every player interviewed for this article could empathize with Wolff’s challenges, there was a very real understanding of the captain’s frustration .

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

“Think about what happens when other players get angry. They get mad and go to the media. [Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver] Ja’Mar Chase he might have the best quarterback on his team (Joe Burrow), his best friend, and he said, “I’m always open.” The dynamic is the same, it’s just golf. I think golfers are very soft. It’s amazing 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 have to work as a team. In real team sports, this happens every day.”

For LIV players, who have clearly embraced the concept of team golf, the interpersonal struggles of the team room are as much a part of the secret sauce as the trades and free agency that await this offseason. If the goal is to drag golf into the world of major sports, the Koepka-Wolff split is the ugly byproduct.

“It’s about the sport and the teams. Every sport has battles between teammates,” said Charles Howell III, a member of Crushers GC. “Now we’re only seeing it in golf because it’s the first time we’ve had teams. It won’t be the last and it probably isn’t the only one that happens, it might be the only one that we know of. It adds another element of team sport.”

It was this element and the potential for conflict that dominated LIV Golf’s second season and put the spotlight on the team captains. Complete players who are used to a single and selfish focus are now faced with the uncertainty of different personalities.

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

Wolf declined to comment on his relationship with Koepka, and it remains to be seen where he will play next season. He is under contract to play LIV Golf for another year, but his deal with Smash GC was only for one season.

Will another captain be able to break through to Wolff, who was among the most coveted free agents in the league last offseason?

RangeGoats GC captain Bubba Watson has been one of Wolff’s most outspoken supporters and is one of the few players to speak publicly about his own mental health issues.

“I love Brooks to death. He tried everything he could to help [Wolff] and [Wolff] just didn’t accept that help,” Watson said. “If that approach doesn’t work, we have to figure out a different way to help Matt, as a person, not as a golfer, get on that path. I went this way. Brooks has tried it all.

Watson said he contacted Wolfe last week to have a chat and “just love him” and he is not the only captain watching the clash with clear curiosity.

“You have to read people differently and approach 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 what is Brooks like, he’s more of an old fashioned, like, army style, go give me a 20 [pushups]” said Kevin Na, Iron Heads GC captain.

“It didn’t work for Matt. Matt is someone you motivate by talking to him, getting to know him on an emotional level and why he’s going through this. He is very insecure about what he has, he is a world class golfer, good looking guy, he has money. It shouldn’t be, but it just is.”

LIV Golf does not create personal conflicts. The PGA Tour is full of players who wouldn’t be friends if they didn’t share playing time, but what team golf has changed is how that animosity no longer stays in the shadows.

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