FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – Overlook him at your own peril.
Eleven months ago as he prepared to defend his U.S. Open crown, Brooks Koepka felt slighted. It was a chip he shouldered with purpose, using it to fuel a successful title defense that was followed quickly by his triumph at last year’s PGA Championship at Bellerive.
The Summer of Koepka seemingly sprang out of nowhere, coming on the heels of a lengthy absence because of a wrist injury. But for every triumphant moment there was a perceived slight – some of which, Koepka admitted Tuesday, were self-manufactured. Hey, if it works, it works.
But the man who arrived this week at Bethpage State Park bears little resemblance to the one who was just returning to action this time last year. Sure, the chiseled physique is still there, but the space between the ears now contains untold (and richly deserved) swagger, thanks in part to his performance last summer in steamy St. Louis.
Koepka has become golf’s big-game hunter, peaking for the biggest events like so many before him have tried but so few succeeded.
“He’s won more majors than he has golf tournaments,” noted world No. 1 Dustin Johnson.
That trophy count currently stands at three to two on the PGA Tour, as Koepka capped off his banner year with a fall victory at the CJ Cup in South Korea. But his major prowess extends far beyond his recent victories; he’s been in the mix nearly every time he’s teed it up in a major over the last four years, finishing outside the top 25 just once.
It’s a pattern of performance that has emboldened Koepka in recent months, turning the page from a player who once viewed media as “the enemy” to one who is not afraid to answer any query lobbed his way. More comfortable in his own skin, this year he has spent ample time calling out slow play on Tour. Last week at the AT&T Byron Nelson, he was asked his thoughts on host Trinity Forest after finishing fourth. His blunt reply: “I like the old course better.”
The trend continued Tuesday, as Koepka was asked if he had a number in mind when it comes to major wins and what would make a successful career.
“I don’t see why you can’t get to double digits,” he said. “I think you keep doing what you’re supposed to do, you play good, you peak at the right times. Like I said, I think sometimes the majors are the easiest ones to win.”
Ask a question, get an answer. It’s a dream scenario for a media member, and one that sheds light on the uncomplicated, highly successful strategy Koepka has employed ever since completing his globetrotting quest for PGA Tour status. Blessed with a game that can contend on any venue, he has embraced a straightforward approach en route to carving out alpha status – even in a world where Tiger Woods wears a green jacket.
“He does have a lot of confidence. But that’s what you need in this game,” Johnson said. “Obviously I spend a lot of time with Brooks and play a lot of golf with him. He’s a really good player, hits it long, hits it straight, has a good short game. That adds up to be a good player, but confidence is definitely a big part of that.”
Just listen to him break down a field, piece by piece, while explaining why certain factions have no chance to win a tournament before a single shot is even struck. He has adopted a perspective made famous years ago by Jack Nicklaus, clinging steadfast to the belief that when it comes to majors, most players will simply eliminate themselves.
“There’s 156 [players] in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat,” Koepka said. “You figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some of them just – pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you with a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”
Koepka’s 10-major target would place him in some rarified air. It’s a plateau that has been reached by only three players in the modern era (Nicklaus, Woods and Walter Hagen), and they are joined by Bobby Jones only once U.S. and British Amateurs are factored.
But having bagged three of the last eight he played and still entering his prime at age 29, Koepka sees only upside as he gets set to defend his PGA title. It’s a well-earned confidence, and one that will likely fuel future major success for a player who has clearly solved the riddle of golf’s four biggest events.
In both his on-course performance and off-course demeanor, Koepka has turned a page from where he was a year ago. And on the eve of the first of two straight major title defenses, he’s hardly in the mood to settle – and he’s certainly no longer overlooked.
“I mean, I have the trophy,” Koepka said. “The last time we played this championship, I won. I feel like I like my chances this week. I feel like I’m playing good. You know, if I do what I’m supposed to do, then yeah, I think I’d be tough to beat.”