AUGUSTA, Ga. – What’s a little more pain for Brooks Koepka?
After all, he’s been sucking it up for as long as his family can remember, long before these nagging injuries to his ankle, wrist, neck and knee interrupted his ascendant career.
“He’s a pretty tough cookie,” said Koepka’s father, Bob. “He’s always had a high threshold for pain.”
And so it was little surprise that Koepka toughed out a 2-over 74 Thursday at the Masters less than a month after undergoing surgery following a dislocated kneecap. That procedure – a medial patellofemoral ligament repair – typically requires a six-month rehabilitation. But here he is, a few weeks later, walking the most grueling course of the year, reporting that he feels “fine” and “all right,” and remaining part of the early story here at Augusta National.
“I just didn’t swing it great,” he said afterward. “It’s tired right now, I’m not going to lie. But I’ve just got to play better.”
Koepka doesn’t like to make excuses, nor does he want to appear weak or vulnerable in public. Those traits seem to be hereditary. His great uncle, Dick Groat, was a former All-American in basketball and baseball who won the 1960 National League MVP; his father was a pitcher for West Virginia Wesleyan. “We all had our share of injuries, and we always felt like as a competitor, you don’t give in,” Bob Koepka said. “You always try to fight through it.” For much of 2020 his son downplayed the extent of the injuries to his left knee and hip. A sore neck bothered him at a few events this spring. When he sustained this latest injury to his right knee – his good knee – it threatened to sideline him for the Masters, and perhaps the entirety of the major season.
But watching from outside the ropes Thursday, seeing his son grit his teeth, Bob Koepka saw that familiar determination.
As a kid, if Brooks tripped while playing soccer and complained of an injury, his dad would approach and ask: “OK, we’ve got two options: We can amputate, or we can keep going. Which do you prefer?”
“Keep going,” Brooks replied every time, and so he dusted himself off and continued to compete.
When he was 6, Brooks was smashed into by a fellow infielder while playing coach-pitch baseball. Dazed on the turf, his mouth was pooling with blood and his bottom four baby teeth were swinging like screen doors. After being taken to the emergency room, Brooks returned home to ice his mouth, but he asked his dad for a favor: Could he go back to the field and see if they won?
“That’s all he cared about,” Bob said. When Brooks returned to practice the next week, sans his bottom row of teeth, his teammates called him “Dracula.” But at least he’d gotten the W.
Fast-forward two decades, and Koepka tore ligaments in his right ankle during the summer of 2016. After a strong season, he missed The Open Championship and tumbled down the Ryder Cup standings. He showed up at the PGA Championship having barely practiced, and with a brace to stabilize his right ankle, and yet he toughed out a 36-hole day at Baltusrol to finish fourth and automatically qualify for the U.S. team.
“When he sets his mind to something, he’s a pretty stubborn character,” Bob said. “That’s the competitor in him – it shows. He thrives on this kind of stuff. He looks forward to it. He’s never one who has shied away from competition. He takes it head-on. Sometimes it’s to his own detriment, because he’s so determined to play.”
Koepka won two majors in 2018 after missing the Masters that year because of a wrist issue. This latest injury occurred right when it appeared as though he was on the comeback trail. He won in Phoenix for his first title in 18 months, a frustrating period in which he was plagued by an injury (and re-injury) to his left knee. Afterward, he revealed that he had begun to question whether he’d ever return to the form that saw him reach world No. 1 and capture four majors in three years. He described himself as being in “dark places mentally.”
Koepka found himself in that familiar spot again in early March. After falling and injuring his right knee during a "freak accident," he popped his kneecap back into place – “He said that was the most painful thing he’s ever been through,” Bob said – underwent surgery and headed back to San Diego for more rehab with trainer Derek Samuel.
“We have a journey ahead of us but as you know, he knows how to fight his way back to where he needs to be,” Samuel said in a text that night. “We will get him there.”
Even quicker than anticipated.
About a week before the Masters, Koepka was cleared to return to competition. He played nine holes each of the past three days, testing his rusty game on a firm, fiery setup and his swollen knee on Augusta National’s dramatic hills. Earlier this week it took him three hours to get his body ready for a practice round, and he stayed up until 12:30 a.m. being worked on. For Thursday’s opening round, the work started at 6 a.m. – four hours before his tee time.
Five-hour rounds take a lot out of him, so he sits on tee-box benches to rest.
Going downhill hurts, so he walks slowly.
Crouching on the greens send a jolt of pain, so he bends at the hips to mark his ball and reads putts with his right leg extended, like a catcher calling for a pitch on the outside corner. He walks with a noticeable limp and grimaces when a shot doesn’t feel right.
From afar, it all seems like a risk, especially for a player who has rushed back from injury before. But Koepka said Thursday that he’s been told by his doctors that he’s not at further risk of re-injury: “The problem is it’s just all the neurological stuff from your brain, firing different muscles. After surgery it takes some time. The legs are just not strong enough.”
Yet they were strong enough to carry him to a fine opening round, all things considered: nine fairways, 10 greens, a round of 74 that was right around the field scoring average.
Many of his peers headed straight to the tournament practice area, to work out the kinks in their game. Koepka, meanwhile, looked ahead to another long night of rehab.
“It’s not getting any worse; it’s only getting better with everything we do,” he said. “It feels a hell of a lot better than it did a week ago, I’ll put it that way.”