PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. — Brooks Koepka’s life has changed in innumerable ways, now that he’s a bona fide world-beater. The latest reminder came earlier this week, when he was forced to change his phone number after receiving a flurry of peculiar texts, calls and voicemails.
“I’d had it for about three or four years,” he said. “It was probably long overdue.”
Indeed, long overdue now that he’s a four-time major champion and the world No. 1 and the hottest player on the planet, a man on the brink of history this week at Pebble Beach, where he can become the first player in more than a century to capture three consecutive U.S. Open titles.
There’s a different vibe surrounding King Koepka’s reign of terror. Unlike the headliners who preceded him, he is neither young (29) nor inexperienced (six full seasons on the PGA Tour). So why is he only now beginning to realize his immense potential? What led to him overtaking Rory McIlroy and Jordan Spieth? How did he become the Menace of the Majors?
It starts here:
Over the past few years, Koepka has used the same word to describe his formula at the majors: “Strict.”
No matter if it’s on Long Island or in St. Louis, it’s always the same crew: his girlfriend, coach, agent, caddie, chef. Rinse, repeat.
“We just go into our own little bubble,” he said.
The effect is cathartic, especially during stressful major weeks: “We get away from golf when we’re at home. When I go home, I put my feet up and relax. To find some place of relaxation is important.”
Watching the PGA Championship from home, Justin Thomas marveled at Koepka’s stoic demeanor and hoped to emulate that behavior during his own title chases, channeling his “inner BK.”
“He’s got one of the best swaggers out here,” Thomas said.
Koepka isn’t afraid to tell you how good he is, and he now has the major credentials to back it up.
“You can certainly start to breed [the confidence] yourself, but as you start to play good golf and start to see the results, the freedom on the golf course is where it starts to really take shape,” Jordan Spieth said. “That’s 100 percent of what you’re seeing out of him. That mentality on the golf course seems to be coming from the confidence in every swing that he’s making.”
And so if Koepka’s name again pops up on the leaderboard here at Pebble, he knows what his opponents will be thinking: “Really? Not again.”
HIS MENTAL STRENGTH
Sure, Koepka would have loved to close out his seven-shot lead at the PGA Championship with as little stress as possible. But the manner in which he eventually prevailed – making four straight bogeys on the back nine, letting his advantage slip to just a single stroke and then needing to find the fairway on his last few holes – could ultimately prove more beneficial.
“He’ll get as much out of this as if he would have won by 15,” said his swing coach, Claude Harmon III.
Koepka was “stunned” by his retreat but undeterred. He didn’t panic. He didn’t pout. He didn’t grouse about the increasingly difficult conditions. And it paid off, with another major.
“Having to re-correct things and reset myself,” he said, “I know how to do that under pressure now.”
Even if he evokes memories of a dominant past, Koepka’s peers don’t yet put him in the same conversation as Tiger Woods for a simple reason: Because he’s yet to overwhelm the competition on a week-by-week basis.
After Koepka claimed his fourth major in his last eight tries, McIlroy spoke for many when he shrugged: “I just don’t understand why he doesn’t do it more often.”
The simplest answer might come down to desire. Chasing numbers like 18 and 14 throughout much of his career, Koepka has been conditioned to believe that the only legacy-defining tournaments he plays are the majors. Even last week at the Canadian Open, Koepka said that the result there didn’t matter – he just wanted to hit enough quality shots to feel prepared for this week’s U.S. Open. He pours everything he has into these weeks and tends to drift through the others, thus the imbalance in his number of regular-season Tour victories (two) and majors won (four).
“It’s kind of irrelevant,” said his father, Bob. “We only count the majors. That’s where he’s at.”
Perusing social media, reading stories, listening to talking heads – athletes in every sport have always looked to the media to provide inspiration. Koepka is no different than any of those other jocks, using various slights and signs of disrespect, no matter how petty, to fuel his rise to the top.
No longer overlooked, Koepka is finding fewer detractors these days, but members of his team still send him stories or tweets that keep him engaged and motivated. The latest came when he said that he was somehow left out of a Fox Sports promo, even as the two-time defending champion.
“We’re amazed that I wasn’t in it,” he said. “Somebody probably got fired over it ... or should.”
Not to be overlooked, of course, is that Koepka’s golf is tailor-made for the game’s biggest events, when the pressure is at its most intense, when the setups are the most severe and the margins for error are the smallest.
Under the watchful eye of Harmon, Koepka ranks 12th on Tour in strokes gained: tee to green and is one of the longest, strongest players in golf. His wedge play and short game have improved dramatically while working with Pete Cowen. Ditto for his putting, since spending time with Jeff Pierce.
But there’s a maturity to his game, as well. He favors a cut shot, thereby eliminating one side of the course. He’s smart enough to know that par is a good score in majors, and that it’s imperative to avoid double bogeys at all costs. (He didn’t make one at the PGA, even during a tough final round.) And he has the self-belief to know that his chief competition is not necessarily the other 155 players in the field, but, realistically, “way less than 35.”
“That’s always a certain amount of guys, if they play well, there’s a good chance they’re going to win,” Koepka said. “Simple as that. You just hope it’s you at the end of the week.”
And more often than not recently, it has been.