The scene comes four paragraphs in: Koepka was playing the Masters just ahead of Tiger Woods, a more famous member of the world’s best golfers club.
And so there they were, Brooks on the 12th tee, Tiger on the 11th green. As Koepka stood over his ball, the wind swirling in the treetops, he backed off his shot once. Then he flared a little 9-iron up into the breeze and watched his ball drop sharply out of the sky like a shot bird, landing in the creek that guards the green. It was a shocking error, and yet in his body language, on his face, there was…nothing. With a single mistake, Koepka had effectively ended his bid for a first green jacket. But instead of grimacing, he handed his club back to his caddie and yanked his sleeve routinely, as though he’d done precisely what he’d intended to do.
“My theory is if you don’t show them anything visually, they can only go off one of their senses: sound,” he explained. “How did the ball sound when it came off? They don’t know if I hit it a hundred percent or 90 percent. And they’ve gotta judge it by the strike.” But if he starts cursing or sulking, Tiger will know it was the shot, not the tricky wind, that foiled him—and calibrate his own approach to No. 12 accordingly. “And so I didn’t have any reaction. I just handed it right back to my caddie. And it might’ve confused him.”
Insert “golf clap” here. (Is there a golf writer’s clap?)
Why are we applauding? Why is this so good?
There’s a lot going on here: In two paragraphs Riley shows that Koepka, who carries a reputation as an instinctual, maybe even cold-blooded, golfer has a less-known thoughtful side. And in the process, he also reveals an often-overlooked aspect of professional golf. Namely, that while we’re watching them, they’re watching, and listening, to each other.
As a bonus, the anecdote features Tiger Woods — a golfer so well-known that his name provides an entry point even for GQ readers who might not be all that familiar with professional golf.
“There’s this weird perception of him (Koepka) being an unthinking, brute-force almost like a dummy, just sort of emotion–free,” Riley told me when I asked him about the profile. “And he kind of acknowledges that reputation.” This from Koepka himself, in Riley’s profile:
“I know it doesn’t look like it,” Brooks said, acknowledging his reputation as an unthinking, unfeeling killer, “but my mind is turning the entire time I’m out there.”
But it’s golf. So you have to stay cool. Or at least appear to.
Internal character in two paragraphs
Golf stands apart from other sports for several reasons. Golfers, and golf fans for that matter, are expected to operate with a sense of decorum. There’s no screaming or taunting. Even applause is muted.
Still, with some small variables, golfers are also often asked to make the same shots that they just watched their opponents make. And especially during the final days of a tournament, they’re playing within view of those opponents. It can be intense — even if it’s less obviously intense than a linebacker taunting a quarterback he’d just sacked. Step back and perhaps the most appropriate comparison might be poker.
“You’re not supposed to really regard your opponent in the same way that you do in other sports,” Riley said. “He talked a lot about leaderboard watching. He’s like totally locked in on what X-, Y- and Z-player does.
“His attitude is when he sees Rory (McIlroy, another more well-known member of the world’s best golfers club) make an eagle on a hole, instead of taking that as a sort of body shot, he’s like, ‘Oh, that means I can eagle that. That hole is getable.’ There’s almost like an irrational confidence, like every single hole you can birdie or eagle.
“He’s able to be deeply in the moment, super competitive, care a ton but also act like he doesn’t. He wants to pretend that he doesn’t care about golf as much as he clearly does.”
And that’s the essence of Riley’s profile. Tied into two paragraphs.
Writing as a one-time editor
Last fall, Riley made a transition. He’d been features editor at GQ for 11 years. Now he’s a correspondent/features writer.
It wasn’t as big of a deal as it sounds, he insists. While he was the in-house editor, he still pried himself loose for several features a year. He’s also a novelist. His second novel, “Barcelona Days,” is scheduled to be released in June by Little, Brown and Company. His first, “Fly Me,” was published by Little, Brown in 2017.
Riley says being features editor, editing other people’s stories and watching as they develop, may have been the perfect education for doing the job that he’s doing now. While working with the nuances of a story, his background as an editor, for example, helps him step back and envision the larger pieces of the puzzle as well.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” he said. “I just found it extremely useful as an editor, and I do now, just knowing the process on both sides of it. I tend to write a long first draft that kind of has everything. And then have a conversation with my editor, knowing where we start the process.
“So much of it is understanding. I understand that the paint is half dry and here’s how we have to work it get it the rest of the way.”
Knowing the full story process
A writer who knows what the editor is dealing with in the larger construction of a story, and an editor who knows what the writer is dealing with in collecting and assembling the piece, each make the process easier on the other. Period.
“Knowing how to work with fact checkers or copy editors. Knowing how to limit the load on my editor when he’s trying to work four pieces at once or when it’s appropriate to have a phone call instead of editing in ‘Document.’”
Writers often wrinkle their noses at editing.
“I always thought that kind of reasoning was a little dubious,” Riley said. “I just found there to be so much value in working on both sides of the ball. I would highly recommend it to any writer. I think it makes me better, more respectful of deadlines, knowing where we can be having a conversation about trying to buy 500 more words or when it’s just going to be annoying.
“I don’t know how scientific this is, but there seems to be a direct correlation between the better you are (as a writer) and the more reverential you are to the editing process.
“Editors are your first, best readers hopefully.”