SAN FRANCISCO -- They are golf's alpha males. One a brute force laser-focused on eviscerating everyone in his path on the biggest stages. The other, a golfing assassin with the power, touch and deadly accuracy to lap fields without breaking a sweat.
They are the world's two best golfers. Whether they want to admit it or not, Brooks Koepka and Rory McIlroy appear to be on a collision course in 2020.
The pair dueled at the end of last season, with Koepka besting McIlroy at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and the Northern Irishman getting his vengeance a month later at the Tour Championship to win the FedEx Cup.
Koepka ended last year by finishing in the top four of each major, including a win at the 2019 PGA Championship. McIlroy won The PLAYERS Championship, the Tour Championship and was named PGA Tour Player of the Year over Koepka.
When asked about the growing rivalry with McIlroy, Koepka dismissed it in October with a not-so-subtle jab.
"I've been out here for, what, five years. Rory hasn't won a major since I've been on the PGA Tour. So I just don't view it as a rivalry," Koepka told AFP in October before the CJ Cup.
"I'm not looking at anybody behind me," Koepka added. "I'm No. 1 in the world. I've got open road in front of me I'm not looking in the rearview mirror, so I don't see it as a rivalry."
After Koepka spent the last three months rehabbing a knee injury, McIlroy overtook him as world No. 1 last week.
So, with McIlroy now in front of Koepka in the Official World Golf Rankings, has that changed the four-time major winner's views of the evergrowing rivalry?
"We haven't competed in a major, coming down the stretch," Koepka said Monday at the 2020 PGA Championship Media Day at Oracle Park. "I think the only time we really competed with each other was the WGC [St. Jude.] So other than that, we haven't been in contention in the same tournament's coming down the stretch. It's kind of hard to say there's a rivalry. People talk about the [Phil Mickelson] and [Tiger Woods] rivalry. it was kind of one-sided there for a long time too. I just don't see rivalries in golf. I really don't."
Golf is, in its nature, a solitary game. You're competing as much against yourself, your mind, your body and the conditions as you are anyone else in the field. It's hard to calculate the number of things needed to go right in order for two golfers to duel on the biggest stages time and time again. It's not basketball or even tennis where the greats truly face each other countless times during their career.
Still, McIlroy admitted that getting beat by Koepka in Memphis gave him an edge to return the favor at the Tour Championship, and the 30-year-old gave a rather icy response last week when asked about passing Koepka as world No. 1.
“Golf isn’t about other people,” McIlroy said before the Genesis Invitational. “Golf is about yourself and getting the best out of what you have. If you keep doing that and keep that mindset, everything else will fall into place.”
McIlroy's career has traveled a unique path. In 2014, he was the dominant force in golf. He won two of the four majors and appeared primed to own the game for the next decade. He hasn't won a major since claiming the Wanamaker Trophy in the fading light at the 2014 PGA Championship. He dropped to 11th in the world in 2017, while dealing with injury and personal troubles along the way. That same year Koepka burst onto the scene by winning his first career major at the U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
Koepka has been golf's Godzilla ever since. A specter of death lurking at major championships ready to rip the hearts out of anyone daring to dream of major glory, winning four of the last 10 majors in which he's teed it up.
All the while, McIlroy has posted six top 10s at majors since 2017, but poor opening rounds and an apparent lack of killer instinct on Sundays has kept him out the winner's circle when it matters most.
McIlroy, now at peace with life and his place in the game, was at the peak of his powers in 2019, with everything but a major championship to show for it. He finished with the greatest non-Tiger strokes gained season since 2003 when the statistic started being tracked.
He's primed to lord over golf as he was expected to after his 2014 season. Koepka will be there to challenge him every step of the way.
As the 2020 major season approaches, McIlroy and Koepka, golf's heavyweights, are on track to throw on-course haymakers at each other throughout the summer.
In 51 days, McIlroy will look to snap his major drought and claim the career grand slam at The Masters. Koepka, who might have spoiled Tiger Woods' emotional return to major glory last year if not for a ball that found the water on No. 12, will arrive at Augusta National with his sights set on cementing himself as golf's terminator.
Koepka can bristle at the notion of a rivalry. McIlroy's newfound zen approach might not give it air to breathe.
But golf's two greatest talents are destined to duel on the golf's biggest stages.
And the game is better for it.