Brooks Koepka’s pissed. Not like the airline-lost-my-luggage, f-bomb-dropping pissed. More like the yeah-that-kind-of-really-chaps-my-ass-now-that-you-bring-it-up pissed.
“Yeah, I was pissed,” he responds when I ask about being left off ESPN’s Dominant 20 list for 2018. “You look at some of those names, and to win two majors and be left off that list I thought was a bit unfair.”
Ariya Jutanugarn, the only professional golfer, was fourth on that list. She won one major last year.
Mike Trout was on the list. So, too, James Harden. Gaudy statistical seasons for both, but neither won championships.
“No disrespect to them. They’re great athletes,” Koepka says. “But I don’t think they had the year that I had.”
Fact: they didn’t.
Oddly enough, the year looked bleak to begin. Koepka sat out the Masters with a wrist injury, borderline depressed and roughly 20 pounds heavier. His opening round of the next major, the U.S. Open, gave no hint of what was coming. He shot 75. But it’s what happened after the round that triggered Koepka.
“When you came off the golf course at Shinnecock after that first round, how many members of the media were there to interview the defending champion,” I ask, knowing the answer.
“I don’t think there were any,” he says.
“How’d you channel that frustration?”
“Tell me I can’t do something, and I can’t wait to prove you wrong.”
(Editor's note: Rich Lerner's in-depth Brooks Koepka feature will air Wednesday on "Live From the PGA Championship" at 7 p.m. ET.)
Before the final round – and with Koepka now tied for the lead – one of Brooks' buddies told him that he couldn’t bench 225 pounds 15 times. Koepka begged to differ. He got to 14 and then needed his spotter to finish the last rep.
He tells me this story after I’ve just watched him work out at the spartan South Florida gym run by his trainer, Joey D, so I’m not shocked that he benches 225. Dude’s an animal. I’m just perplexed that he’d risk injury and fatigue BEFORE the final round of a major he has a chance to win.
“It’s only golf,” he says. “I’m just walking around for five hours so it’s not a big deal. Plus, I don’t like to sit around all morning.”
That's 225 in the morning, 68 in the afternoon. That’s just what Brooks does. The first since Curtis Strange, in 1989, to win back-to-back U.S. Opens.
But these days that’s not entirely good enough. If you haven’t said something endearing or controversial, if you haven’t been branded or given a scripted ad agency sheen by Nationwide or State Farm – or whatever Payton Manning and Chris Paul are selling – your Q rating suffers.
And so Koepka did make another list. The one Deadspin put out naming the 19 Most Boring Athletes of All Time. He’s in good company with the likes of Tim Duncan and Pete Sampras.
But Brooks has vowed to change. “I’ve noticed how a lot of the NBA guys really speak their minds, voice their opinions.
“I’ve always been politically correct. I was never going to be controversial. I didn’t want the bad press. I was worried about what everybody else thought.
“Now the difference is there are certain things that need to be said in golf and I feel like I’m in a great position where I can speak my mind and hopefully influence the game in a better way.”
I start with some easy shots. Slow play?
“I can’t stand it,” Koepka barks. “I don’t understand it. Golf’s losing fans and part of the reason is it’s very slow. I think penalty strokes are the only way to get the attention of slow players.”
What about Sergio Garcia’s behavior in Saudi Arabia?
“Uncalled for,” he says, “disrespectful to all the players and everyone doing the event.”
When pressed on why HE agreed to play in an event sponsored by a repressive and brutal regime, Koepka replies, “My mission as a professional golfer is to grow the game around the world.”
The next truly captivating golfer will be the one who wins AND takes controversial political stands. There is no Ali on Tour. Koepka’s certainly not there, but neither is he entirely boring. He generates some Instagram eye candy, some clickable material – sort of “Entourage” meets “Inside the PGA Tour”.
After the win at Erin Hills, site of the 2017 U.S. Open, Koepka loaded up a tight group of a half-dozen people on private jet and flew to Vegas for a week-long hang.
“Then I had my boys and a couple other friends fly out,” he says with a sly smile.
“You pick up the tab for that airfare?”
“Yeah, I had no problem with that. We had a good time.”
From Vegas, they bounced west. “We decided to keep the party going,” he relays, “went to L.A. and hung out for three days.”
Brooks was doing L.A.’s rooftop scene when he ran into Lil’ Wayne. “I snuck in to make a phone call,” he says. “And next thing I know I could smell some, well, some people were coming down the hallway and I looked up and it was Lil’ Wayne and I was like, this is awesome, this is somebody I’ve wanted to meet my entire life.”
“You caught a whiff of real celebrity?”
“It was in the air. There were three big dudes walking by and I mean they were massive and then I looked behind them and there was Lil’ Wayne. It was pretty cool.”
Brooks Got Money. Can’t Be Broken. I’m Me.
Earlier this year, he chilled in the Maldives with Dustin Johnson and Paulina Gretzky. There, he created a social media moment posing with his girlfriend, Jena Sims. They were both wearing … well, not much. Just thongs, actually.
“What was the general feedback in terms of who had the better behind, you or Jena?”
“I think Jena did.”
“I can’t believe I just asked that.”
“I was trying to flex like an Instagram model, get up on my tippy toes and I realized it probably wasn’t going to work for me. Just trying to let people into our lives outside the golf course.”
The sexy girlfriend, the Instagram heat, the exotic locales, that’s the little extra the public seems to want these days and Brooks is doing his part.
But it’s all TMZ pabulum without real achievement. Twitter and Instagram, what some website writes or TV guy thinks – none of that matters on the 16th tee in the final round of the PGA Championship at Bellerive with Tiger Woods posting 64 ahead of you and a large portion of the public rooting for you to bury your tee shot under the lip of a bunker so they can witness history.
One thing matters. The strike. And the 4-iron from 247 yards to 6 feet was, for my money, the purest single shot of 2018. He followed that birdie with bloodless, burning drives off Nos. 17 and 18 to win his second major of the year.
The curators of that dominant athlete list must’ve missed that finish.