FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – One by one they trudged back to the Bethpage Black clubhouse, beaten down not just by this 7,400-yard monster but also golf’s newest behemoth, Brooks Koepka.
Years from now no one will remember that Koepka bogeyed five of his final eight holes at the PGA Championship to turn a runaway into an all-out brawl. All that mattered was the end result – a two-stroke victory – and that Koepka’s .500 batting average at his last eight majors stamped the 29-year-old as a generational player and the sport’s dominant force.
“It’s been a hell of a run,” Koepka said afterward, the Wanamaker Trophy again by his side. “I’m trying not to let it stop.”
On a blustery Sunday, these proud pros weren’t yet ready to concede the next few years to King Koepka, but there was an unmistakable wariness about a superstar who’s only growing more confident, whose superiority differs from the world-beaters who preceded him.
After all, Tiger Woods’ dominance was so oppressive that it demoralized his competition and stunted the careers of even Hall of Fame talents like Phil Mickelson and Ernie Els. Rory McIlroy was (and is) so charismatic, and his swing so poetic, that his peers couldn’t help but sing his praises, even as he ripped off four majors in 14 starts. To his chief challengers, Jordan Spieth’s brilliance was almost irritating, that a medium-length hitter could ride a wizardly short game and molten putter to three majors in 11 starts.
But what to make of Koepka, the new Master of the Majors? Despite the jock swagger and NFL-safety build, his opponents don’t quake in his presence. (As Koepka said of Tiger: “What’s the point in fearing anybody? We’re not fighting.”) That stone-cold mentality took years to develop, ever since his former assistant coach at Florida State, Chris Malloy, surreptitiously filmed him during tournament rounds to illustrate the negative effect of his on-course temper tantrums. The ensuing punishment – “Brooks knew every step at Doak Campbell Stadium,” his father, Bob, said – helped mold Koepka into the unflinching automaton we see today.
His journey to this summit differed, too. Unlike Woods or McIlroy or Spieth, Koepka wasn’t a child prodigy. He didn’t win until his senior year of college, then scratched out a living on far-flung continents. He’s not a young hotshot (29), taking the golf world by storm. And though he’s not flashy or artistic, his smash-mouth brand of golf epitomizes the modern game, an athletic style built on brawn and noteworthy more because of his completeness than any standout area.
“He’s just abusing the golf course with brute force,” said 2002 PGA champion Rich Beem. “The lines he’s taking off some of the tees, the irons he’s hitting into some of the holes, it’s just mind-boggling. I’m just in admiration of what he’s doing.”
“Brooks is like Dustin (Johnson), but with Tiger’s mind,” Graeme McDowell said. “A phenomenal athlete with an incredible mindset, who’s able to go into this deep, dark place that not a lot of golfers can find. He’s incredible at it.”
Because of his 330-yard carries off the tee and his ability to muscle out 9-irons from gnarly rough, Koepka is afforded a conservative approach in majors. Avoid double bogeys. Err on the proper side. Limit three-putts. Hang around, letting others crumble. Last week, Koepka channeled Jack Nicklaus when he opined that the majors were actually the easiest to win, and there’s some truth to that – many in the field either can’t hang with his firepower or will shrink from the moment. Koepka’s biggest threats disagreed with that premise, but with mounting scar tissue perhaps they’d be wise to adopt his uncomplicated mindset: McIlroy has gone winless in the majors since 2014 and Johnson now trails his former sidekick, 4-1.
“I’ve got to go out to dinner with him and try to work out what’s in that brain,” McDowell said. “It just seems to be pure confidence. It’s amazing.”
That self-belief has crept into Koepka’s daily gatherings with the press. With his elevated stature, Koepka has – as Xander Schauffele put it – “talked some s---” in the media center over the past few months. But he’s also backed it up. Last week, Koepka riffed on why double-digit major wins was attainable, and it wasn’t the first time he’s shared that ambition. A few years ago, he was meeting with a group from a major equipment manufacturer when the executives started discussing another young buck they thought could reach eight to 10 career majors. Koepka stewed at the end of the table, until he’d finally had enough.
“That’s not going to happen,” he said.
“OK, then who’s going to do it?” they asked.
Koepka raised his hand.
“He’s always been very determined with what he wants to do,” Bob Koepka said. “When someone tells him he can’t do something, it makes him work that much harder to get it done.”
As for that other player and that outsized major projection?
“He’s still out here,” the elder Koepka said. “He doesn’t have any [majors], by the way.”
Still, it’s mystifying that a player this spectacular can own only two other Tour titles. That’s why, to the older generation, Woods still resides in another stratosphere, his dominance so remarkable because he pummeled his opponents all year long – and then performed at an even higher level in the tournaments that mattered most. Koepka, meanwhile, can sometimes seem disinterested when teeing it up in Orlando or Boston or Dallas, but when he shows up at the majors, his focus increases “tenfold,” because he’s been conditioned that these legacy-defining tournaments – and numbers like 18 and, now, 15 – supersede everything else.
Why can’t he summon that intensity more often? “Who cares?” Beem said. “I’d rather watch him do this at a major than go win a regular Tour event by two or three. The way he goes out and tortures everybody in the majors is simply impressive.”
“You guys can tell me how many majors Jack won, but anybody know how many tournaments he won?” asks Bob Koepka, until a reporter, correctly, replies that Nicklaus won 73 Tour events. “OK, I see everybody else questioning. So it’s kind of irrelevant. We only count the majors. So that’s kind of where he’s at.”
And that’s where Koepka will continue to be, no longer disrespected, no longer overlooked, no longer overshadowed by his contemporaries. Over the past 23 months he hasn’t just earned our attention – he’s seized us by the throat and demanded it.
That’s the mark of a truly dominant force.