PORTRUSH, Northern Ireland – The most intoxicating thing in sports is the air of invincibility. That once-in-a-lifetime moment in a once-in-a-lifetime athlete’s career that he can do no wrong and has no challengers.
On Tuesday, ahead of the 148th British Open, Brooks Koepka and Tiger Woods met with the media back-to-back at Royal Portrush and we saw one man who is living it today, and another who lived it for longer than nearly all before him.
What makes invincibility doubly fascinating is that we know it’s only a matter of time before it’s gone. Everybody eventually hits the canvas, loses the race, gets caught by the next generation. In the end, everybody loses. But for that magic moment in time when you’re on top and never have to think of looking over your shoulder, there is nothing like it.
Koepka, 29, finally explained why he doesn’t do well at regular tour events – with only two wins – and did it with the candour he’s become known for.
“I just practice before the majors,” he said. “Regular tournaments I don’t practice. If you’ve seen me on TV, that’s when I play golf.”
The world No. 1 told us what he thinks about the Olympics (“I haven’t given it any thought”), what he thinks about going second place, first place, second place through three majors this year (“Finishing second sucks”), and shared his thoughts on why Americans have won nine of the past ten majors (“I have no idea”).
The first rule of invincibility apparently is to not think about invincibility. At least for Koepka. This is his moment and he’s staying locked in it at all costs. There will be plenty of time for reflection when he’s finished playing golf — his line, not mine.
Koepka’s plan for Portrush, a course he hadn’t played until this week, is to listen closely to caddie Ricky Elliott who was raised in this seaside town and has played 1000 rounds here. In general though, his links golf philosophy is appropriately straightforward.
“Just try and avoid bunkers, that’s all,” he said.
Koepka has said that many top players tend to overthink big events, and although he says his focus “goes up tenfold” at majors, he has a “Just Do It” philosophy that would make his apparel sponsor happy.
Early in Koepka’s reign, his stone-faced nature and a perpetual chip on his shoulder came off as dismissive to a golf audience used to top players trying to dazzle the audience with insight and sharp wit, with varying results. After four wins in his past nine major starts, we realized that we might not have been getting what we were used to, but we were getting his true motivations and approach to the game, which is worth infinitely more than charm and good humour.
Listening to the high-speed camera shutters fire at even a hint of a Tiger Woods smile or hand gesture, was all you needed to know about his stature in the game, specifically at this championship. The sense that the days – or at least years – are numbered for the 15-time major champion seems to be heightened here in linksland, where the game’s history is the longest. After playing 17 events last year, Woods has scaled back his schedule considerably this season, and is making just his fourth start since winning the Masters in April.
“You have to understand, if I play a lot, I won’t be out here that long,” he said.
Woods knows invincibility better than anyone. Few players in any sport have had it as long or lost it as dramatically.
Tiger heaped praise on Koepka’s recent major run before delivering the line of the day when he was asked if any of the Northern Irishman – for instance, Koepka’s caddie Elliott – have offered any hints about a Portrush course he hadn’t played until this week. He said he recently texted Koepka about just that.
“I said, ‘Hey, dude, do you mind if I tag along and play a practice round?’ ” Woods said. “I’ve heard nothing.”
It’s a dog-eat-dog world even for the Big Cat.
Woods days of invincibility are behind him, but he offers sports fans nostalgia, which is nearly as powerful. It’s why you’re probably binge-watching Stranger Things right now. The golf world might be waiting for what’s next from Woods, but for him, it seems his historic comeback win at the Masters is still fresh.
“It was a very emotional week and one that I keep reliving,” Woods said. “It’s hard to believe that I pulled it off and I ended up winning the tournament.”
Woods explained that his short game is great at the moment but his full shots still need work before Thursday. He has one day to straighten that out. There is also much to learn on a links course he hadn’t seen until Sunday. Like Koepka, Woods said he will lean heavily on his caddie this week. Unlike Koepka, Woods’ caddie hasn’t played 1000 rounds here.
If Tiger was to steal the show later this week, it wouldn’t be the first time. But on Tuesday at Royal Portrush, Koepka stole the show from Woods in the interview room, and that might be a first.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019