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Koepka's season goes from in doubt to double majors

By Ryan LavnerAugust 13, 2018, 4:30 pm

ST. LOUIS – Brooks Koepka’s career year almost ended before it even began.

At the 2018 kickoff event at Kapalua, Koepka opened with rounds of 78-74-78-75, finished 37 shots behind world No. 1 Dustin Johnson, in dead last, and felt throbbing pain in his left wrist. For months, doctors struggled to identify the problem before he finally was diagnosed with a torn ligament. His management team offered an expected return date in eight to 12 weeks, but in hindsight that was optimistic. They were as uncertain as anyone.

“It was almost a career-threatening injury,” said Claude Harmon III, Koepka’s swing coach. “We didn’t think he was ever going to play again.”

One of the most common criticisms of Koepka is that he gives off a vibe as though he doesn’t care about golf. In many ways, that’s accurate. When at home he’ll never flip on coverage of the Texas Open or Greenbrier. He’s not a history buff. He doesn’t even really like to play recreationally – he hasn’t played a casual round with his father, Bob, in three years.

But once he’s inside the ropes? He burns as hot as anyone, and he needed some time on the sidelines to rekindle that.

“He recognized how close he was to not being able to play the game he dearly loves to play,” Bob Koepka said. “It made him appreciate the game a lot more, because he realized how close it was to being taken away from him.”

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Away from the Tour indefinitely, Koepka hit the lowest point of his career. He often went days without leaving his couch, binge-watching TV shows and gaining 20 pounds – unthinkable for such a gym rat.

“I don’t want to say I was depressed,” Koepka said, “but I was definitely down.”

“Yeah, he was down in the dumps,” said his caddie, Ricky Elliott, who’d occasionally drive from Orlando to Jupiter to visit. “He had that sort of injury where it didn’t seem like there was going to be an end. If you break your leg, fine, you’ll be back in June. But this was a niggling injury. There was no timeframe on it, and that was the most frustrating thing.”

Once it became clear that Koepka would have to skip the Masters, his family hoped that he’d be able to return in June for his title defense at the U.S. Open. That was the goal. So imagine their relief after the doctors finally cleared him to hit balls the Monday after Augusta.

“I had just talked to myself: All right, one day at a time. Keep going. Keep going. You’re getting closer and closer,” Koepka said. “And then when I finally got the OK from my doctors, I’ve never been more focused, more driven, more excited to play and really embracing what’s around me.”

Koepka never has overworked himself at home because he knows that he won’t lose his edge if he takes a week off. After winning last year’s U.S. Open, the only time he picked up a club before the next major was for a commercial shoot with one of his sponsors. He still tied for sixth at The Open.

It’s a fortunate trait to possess – and one that his younger brother, Chase, a fledgling tour pro, doesn’t have – and so after the injury it didn’t take long for Brooks to start flushing full shots again.

“I said, ‘Are you sure you haven’t been practicing?’” Elliott said. “He hadn’t played in 3 ½ months, and he hadn’t missed a beat. I have no idea how he does it. He’s just a tremendously talented guy.” 

Even before his first start back, in the team event in New Orleans, Koepka texted his old college coach, Florida State’s Trey Jones, and told him that he’d win again in the next two months. Despite tweaking his wrist in a freak incident at The Players, Koepka shot 63 in the final round at TPC Sawgrass, posted a pair of 63s two weeks later at Colonial, and then won the U.S. Open the following month.

Photo gallery: Brooks Koepka through the years

“I can honestly say that I’m shocked the way he’s come back to play,” Bob Koepka said.

“It’s been a blessing in disguise,” Jones said, “because he’d definitely taken it for granted because he was so good. He has a new appreciation.”

That was evident in the way Koepka handled himself in the majors this year.

Watching him now, six years removed from college, Jones can’t help but marvel at how at ease Koepka appears.

That wasn’t always the case, of course. Koepka had a fierce temper growing up, chucking clubs and stomping around the course. One time in college, after he complained about course conditions, Jones dragged his feet all around the cup on the practice putting green and put a shaft in front of the hole. Jones told him to find a way to make it, somehow.

All these years later, Koepka hadn’t forgotten the message. Shinnecock’s greens turned slicker than linoleum during the third round of the U.S. Open, but Koepka kept his head and stayed in the tournament. On Sunday night, after he won, he texted Jones: “If I can make it over the shaft, I can make it on these greens.”

Bellerive Country Club drew its share of player and media criticism, too, but Koepka never uttered a negative word publicly at the PGA. Why bother? Five months earlier, he’d been laid out on the couch, his promising career on hold. Nothing was going to stop his pursuit of another major – not the slow, fuzzy greens, not a host of young stars, not even Tiger Woods. He became just the fourth player to win the U.S. Open and PGA in the same season.

Koepka acknowledged Sunday night that one of his biggest challenges moving forward will be staying healthy. Despite being built like an NFL safety, he’s missed six months and two majors (and was significantly comprised in another) in the past few seasons. A player who swings that ferociously likely will run into trouble, eventually, but Koepka said that he’s “much more disciplined now” in taking care of his body.

The rest of his 2018 season is proof.

Instead of a lost year, he gained more than he ever could have imagined.

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DJ may keep cross-handed grip for Ryder Cup

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 4:29 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – As he’s proven in the past Dustin Johnson isn’t averse to switching things up when it comes to his putting, but this was extreme even for him.

Johnson switched to a cross-handed grip on the sixth hole during Saturday’s third round at the Tour Championship and continued to use the same grip through the final round.

It was the first time he’d putted cross-handed in competition and the first time he switched his grip mid-round.

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“I did it a few times on the putting green. Sometimes I do it on the putting green just to get my setup a little bit better because it just levels out my shoulders,” said Johnson, who closed his week at East Lake with a 67 and finished alone in third place. “I was putting well. I hit some bad putts for the first five holes, so after I hit a really bad putt for eagle on 6, the next one I tried it, I made it, so I kept it going.”

Johnson, who moved back into the top spot in the World Golf Ranking thanks to his third-place finish, was encouraged by his putting on the weekend but he was vague when asked if he planned to putt cross-handed this week at the Ryder Cup.

“We're going to stick with it for now. We'll try it,” he said.

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For the U.S. team, advice from the gridiron

By Damon HackSeptember 24, 2018, 4:01 pm

Seve Ballesteros might have been a magician with a sand wedge, but he was truly hell on wheels.

As Europe’s captain at the 1997 Ryder Cup in his native Spain, Ballesteros led his team with a heavy foot, racing across the emerald landscape in a souped-up Club Car festooned with blue flags.

“All week long it seemed like there were four Seves or five Seves,” recalls Lee Janzen, who went 2-1-0 for the United States. “He was everywhere. I’d turn around and look up and he’d be following our group, and then he was gone, and then he was back with our group again. I found out years later that there were tunnels at the golf course. I asked [‘97 U.S. captain] Tom Kite and he said he knew about the tunnels, too, but it didn’t seem like he knew about ALL the tunnels.”

The most infamous golf cart in the history of the Ryder Cup is, mercifully, far from Paris, but somehow the skid marks from Valderrama remain.

Europe’s 14 ½-to-13 ½ win over the United States 25 years ago began a streak that has lasted over two decades, a stretch of European dominance and long American flights home.

While the United States has made large strides in teamwork and bonding, the work of its 2014 task force must be judged as incomplete until the Americans find a way in Europe.

It hasn’t happened since Bryson DeChambeau was 10 days old.

“I’m getting tired of saying I was on the last team to win on the road,” says Jim Gallagher Jr., who defeated Ballesteros in singles as a Ryder Cup rookie in 1993. “That was the horse-and-buggy era.”

The American road futility has not gone unnoticed. It has transcended the golf world to the point that figures throughout the sports world have watched as five straight American teams have returned from Europe empty-handed - from Valderrama, the Belfry, the K Club, Celtic Manor and Gleneagles.

One year, Seve shrinks the course, tightening the doglegs and taking driver out of the hands of Tiger and Phil (1997). Or Paul McGinley makes the big putt (2002). Or Darren Clarke proves an inspiration (2006). Or there’s rainsuitgate, golf's version of a wardrobe malfunction (2010). Or Jamie Donaldson starts knocking down flagsticks (2014).

It’s always been something - the vagaries of travel, body clocks out of rhythm, fewer friendly faces in the crowd and missed putts.

So how do you win on the road?

“Whatever you’ve done to be successful in a Ryder Cup at home you try to do the same thing on the road, as far as preparation, meals, meetings, practice, timing, as much as you can make it a home situation,” says Dan Reeves, who participated in nine combined Super Bowls as an NFL running back and coach. “Stay in as nice a place as you can. Do you have a pre-game meal? One thing you’ll talk about with your team is that they’ll be in Paris for several days.”

Reeves was the Atlanta Falcons' head coach for Super Bowl XXXIII in Miami when one of his top defensive players was arrested for soliciting an undercover policewoman the night before the game.

The Falcons went on to lose to Reeves’ former team - the Denver Broncos - 34-19 in what has become one of the most well-known cautionary tales in sports.

“There are a lot of distractions on the road,” Reeves says. “Stay focused on what the job is, have things arranged to where they can do things as a group instead of going out and getting into any kind of trouble.”

R.C. Slocum, the former head coach of Texas A&M, also took his road preparation seriously, once going as far as calling Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio for advice on a road game against the high-powered University of Hawaii.

“I called the military and said, ‘Tell me about moving troops from one time zone to another,’” Slocum says. “They gave me a study. The typical response for a long airplane ride is for adults to drink alcohol and coffee and for [college] kids to have carbonated drinks. If you have a few alcoholic beverages at 40,000 feet, you are going to have sleep issues and hydration issues. We put a quart bottle of water in every kid’s seat. ‘Drink this whole bottle before we get there.’”

Slocum says the study also told him to get his players on the time zone of the arrival city as soon as possible.

“The best thing to do when you land,” Slocum says, “is to go get some exercise.”

The coach put together a robust itinerary for his team that varied from a Polynesian dinner show to a solemn trip to the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor.

After calling several coaches of teams who’d lost road games in Hawaii, Slocum packed extra sunscreen after being told of visiting athletes striking out to Hawaii’s beaches and ending up too sunburnt to comfortably wear shoulder pads.

“Those are things you can control,” Slocum says.

His Aggies won, 28-13.

What advice would he give to U.S. captain Jim Furyk and his 12 players as they try to unlock their own road riddle?

“This is a business trip at the highest level,” Slocum says. “They are so privileged to be on the team and represent the United States. They owe it to each other to be at their best. Anything a guy does against that is cheating his teammates and his country and all the people back home rooting for him. To play on the biggest stage is an opportunity that only rolls around a few times.”

That stage has only grown bigger through the years, as evidenced by the 50,000 fans that attended Hazeltine each day.

Some organizers have predicted 60,000 to 65,000 daily at Le Golf National.

And most won’t be donning red, white and blue.

“It’s a bit like in football in that you want to keep them quiet, but the louder they scream and the better you play, that’s what’s really energizing,” says Joe Theismann, who won Super Bowl XVII as the Washington Redskins' quarterback. “When you reach an elite status as an athlete, the ability to focus and block things out is paramount. I played in front of 100,000 people and I could still hear a pin drop.”

Theismann still remembers leading Washington to a 1983 road win against the Detroit Lions at the Pontiac Silverdome.

“Loudest stadium I’ve ever played in,” he says. “It was built down into the ground so the sound would circle around you and sit on top of you. Coming out of that game, you felt like you accomplished something.”

At Ryder Cups in Europe, that sound has been chants of “Ole, ole, ole, ole,” a soundtrack on an endless loop.

“You want to thrive in that chaos,” says former Green Bay Packers linebacker A.J. Hawk. “That’s the true test of mental strength.”

Hawk imagined himself standing in the middle of the United States team room on the eve of the Ryder Cup.

“That’s a hell of a group to be addressing, a lot of major championships,” Hawk says. “I’d say ‘Look at your left and right. This is us against them, and we are in hostile territory. You’ve got each other, your wives, your family, and there is nobody else. Let’s go out here and lean on your brother. You go into Paris and beat up on Europe, you all will be talking about it for the next 20, 30, 40 years.”

Much better than talking about Seve’s old golf cart.

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U.S. team celebrates wins by Woods, Stricker

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 3:50 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The U.S. Ryder Cup team was waiting to catch a charter flight to Paris late Sunday in Atlanta when the man everyone was waiting for arrived.

“We had a major victory for the team and we had a whole group of guys waiting in the team room, and then a giant roar when Steve Stricker walked in the room after his victory last night,” U.S. captain Jim Furyk laughed.

Stricker, one of Furyk’s vice captains, did win on Sunday, but it was on the PGA Champions Tour at the Sanford International. The bigger roar, of course, was reserved for Tiger Woods, who won for the first time in five years at the Tour Championship.

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“Obviously Tiger played so well at the Tour Championship and to grab ahold of the golf tournament early and fend everyone off, I think was a good buzz in the team room,” Furyk said. “It’s nice to have those two guys play so well, and you know, start us off pretty well this week.”

Woods’ victory at East Lake included a final-round pairing with Rory McIlroy, who the American beat by three strokes, and set an early tone for the Ryder Cup. In fact, European captain Thomas Bjorn was even asked if Woods should be “feared” this week.

“We don't fear anyone because we've played against them so many times before individually but we respect our opponents and know what we are up against,” Bjorn said.

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U.S. Ryder Cup team arrives in Paris

By Rex HoggardSeptember 24, 2018, 3:27 pm

SAINT-QUENTIN-EN-YVELINES, France – The U.S. Ryder Cup team landed in Paris just before 1 p.m. (local time) on Monday and most players headed to the hotel to rest following a long week at the Tour Championship.

“I’m not going to be at the golf course tomorrow,” Justin Thomas said on Sunday following his final round at East Lake.

U.S. captain Jim Furyk said he encouraged his players to take a day to rest and recover with a busy week looming. Half of Furyk’s team have never played Le Golf National, site of this week’s matches, and the next three days promise to be a crash course in learning the nuances of the layout.

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“These next three days are very key for us and very important in practice to get to know this golf course, to understand as best we can the ins and outs,” Furyk said.

Thomas played the French Open on the Ryder Cup course in July and Bubba Watson, Jordan Spieth and Tony Finau made a scouting trip to Le Golf National prior to The Open.

“I was always a guy who broke down golf courses in a major trying to learn, like at a major championship, trying to learn a golf course in 36 holes and be very prepared for that round on Thursday,” Furyk said. “That's what we're going to have to do, and the European side is going to know the golf course a lot better.”