Azinger questions Koepka’s love for playing in Ryder Cup

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Brooks Koepka

Brooks Koepka hits from the tee on the third hole during second-round play in the Tour Championship golf tournament at East Lake Golf Club, Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson)

Brooks Koepka says in an interview with Golf Digest that Ryder Cup week is hectic and “a bit odd” because it takes him from his individual routine and leaves him no time to decompress.

It was enough to make Paul Azinger wonder if Koepka should even play next week.

“I’m not sure he loves the Ryder Cup that much,” Azinger said during a conference call for NBC Sports, where he now serves as the lead golf analyst. “If he doesn’t love it, he should relinquish his spot and get people there who do love the Ryder Cup.”

For Azinger, the Ryder Cup is personal.

He played four times and is best known for his dispute with Seve Ballesteros and an epic battle with Nick Faldo in 1993 that led to a draw. Azinger also was known as “Captain America” in 2008 when he introduced a pod system to get the players more invested. The U.S. wound up beating Europe at Valhalla that year.

Koepka never said in the wide-ranging interviewhe didn’t like the Ryder Cup. He has played on the last two teams, and even competed on an badly injured ankle in the 2016 PGA Championship in a bid to qualify for the team, which he did.

“I don’t want to say it’s a bad week,” Koepka told Golf Digest in a Q&A. “We’re just so individualized, and everybody has their routine and a different way of doing things, and now, it’s like, OK, we have to have a meeting at this time or go do this or go do that. It’s the opposite of what happens during a major week.”

Koepka has back-to-back wins in the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship and has a reputation for playing his best in the majors. He does his own thing and says it’s important to switch off when he’s not playing.

The Ryder Cup is different.

“It’s tough,” Koepka said. “There are times where I’m like, ‘I won my match. I did my job. What do you want from me?’ I know how to take responsibility for the shots I hit every week. Now, somebody else hit a bad shot and left me in a bad spot, and I know this hole is a loss. That’s new, and you have to change the way you think about things.

“You go from an individual sport all the time to a team sport one week a year,” he said. “It’s so far from my normal routine.”

Some of his comments reflected the thinking of Rory McIlroy, who has played every match since his first Ryder Cup in 2010. McIlroy was asked about the team concept two weeks ago at the Tour Championship.

“You can be all buddy-buddy, try to be the best teammate you can,” McIlroy said. “At the end of the day, I want to go out and win my point. That’s all I can do. I’m a professional golfer, and by nature, I’m pretty selfish, and there’s no point in not being selfish in that.

“The best thing you can do to be a team player is win your point.”

The topic came up during the conference call when Azinger was asked what advice he would give to U.S. captain Steve Stricker on handling the prickly relationship between Koepka and Bryson DeChambeau.

Azinger said both players are capable of putting the team on their shoulders and “carry this Ryder Cup team, and they can also be a royal pain in the neck.”

And then he referenced the interview with Koepka, who is recovering from a wrist injury that occurred when he hit a tree root under the turf at East Lake at the Tour Championship.

“Not everybody embraces it,” Azinger said of the Ryder Cup. “But if you don’t love and you’re not sold out, then I think Brooks — especially being hurt — should consider whether or not he really wants to be there.”

Azinger suggested the decision would be easier considering his beef with DeChambeau.

“Brooks is one of the most candid, most honest guys there is, and if he’s blatantly honest with himself and doesn’t want to be there, he should come out and say it,” Azinger said.

It sounds as though Koepka has made up his mind. In a text to Golfweek on Wednesday night, he said, “I’ll be there ready to play.”

This isn’t the first time a player was criticized with the Ryder Cup approaching. Hunter Mahan was on the verge of qualifying for his first team in 2008 when he was quoted in a Golf magazine article saying the Ryder Cup was mainly about money and he had heard the week was overly long with extravagant dinners.

Mahan apologized to the PGA of America, and then he missed the cut in the final qualifying event. The captain — Azinger — picked him, anyway.

Mahan was unbeaten in his five matches in a U.S. victory.

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