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How Brooks Koepka took back title as Tour's biggest badass by force

Brooks Koepka
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BRADENTON, Fla. – When telling the story of Brooks Koepka’s resurgence this season, much of the focus has been on his therapeutic club-snapping in San Diego following his third consecutive missed cut. And no doubt, that was an uncharacteristic outburst for the normally placid player, who broke an entire set of irons over his knee and retreated to his bedroom to fume for the next 30 hours.

But more revealing is what happened next.

Still furious, Koepka finally left his rental house that weekend but only to go to the gym, where he met up at La Jolla Sports Club with arguably the most indispensable member of his team: his trainer, Derek Samuel. Together, they’ve transformed the battered superstar into – once again – the biggest, baddest bully in the game. 

“He came in and didn’t say a word – he was as pissed off as I’ve ever seen him,” Samuel said by phone last week. “He knew he was moving and swinging well, but he wasn’t scoring worth a damn. So, we hammered a workout.”

Abdominal exercises, sled pushes, core work on the hyperextension table, battle ropes – Koepka did every set to failure. After a 10- to 15-second rest, he started again, until he couldn’t muster another rep.

At one point, Samuel brought over a trash can.

He thought Koepka was about to puke.

“Get that f-----g thing outta here,” Koepka snarled.

Samuel beamed with pride.

“The public doesn’t really understand how hard this guy works,” Samuel said, “but this is honestly one of the hardest-working athletes I’ve ever been around – and I’m in the NFL space.”

A week after pushing himself to the max, Koepka earned the validation he’d been craving: a stirring back-nine rally to capture the Waste Management Phoenix Open, his first PGA Tour title since July 2019. Afterward, he appeared emotional, offering a few rare moments of vulnerability – about the dark moments and the tears and the uncertainty about whether he was ever going to rediscover the form that brought him four major titles and a No. 1 world ranking.

There isn’t any doubt now, not after his tie for second against the strongest field of the year so far at the World Golf Championships-Workday Championship.

“I’ve got no complaints,” Koepka said Sunday. “I like where it’s at. It’s definitely ahead of where it’s been in years’ past.”

This protracted comeback began in fall 2019, when he first hooked up with Samuel, 48, a highly respected physical therapist in San Diego with a host of high-profile NFL clients. Koepka had just re-injured his left knee when he slipped on wet concrete in South Korea. Despite going back-to-back at the PGA Championship to stamp himself as a player for the ages, Koepka’s knee had bothered him for much of 2019 and was casting doubt on his future. Because he was in pain, he naturally opted for rest, but that’s one of the worst things an athlete can do to a tendon injury; that’s how it becomes weaker and less dense.

It was time to ask for expert help.

Samuel had never worked with an elite golfer, but Nike’s senior director of performance Ryan Flaherty warned him that Koepka was different.

“I was in Brooks’ house for 90 seconds, and I kid you not,” Samuel said, “I said to myself, This is not an ordinary golfer. He’s a different kind of badass. You can see it in his eyes – his conviction, his intensity.”

After three months of rehab, Koepka began 2020 with a flourish, firing an opening 66 in his first round in Abu Dhabi. But Samuel had seen enough knee injuries to know that it was a mirage, that eventually there’d be more bad days than good. Sure enough, Koepka posted only one top-10 finish in his first 10 starts of the new year. The low point came at the Memorial, when he stressed the tendon in his knee even further by walking down the steep slopes at hilly Muirfield Village. By then, the pain was moving up the kinetic chain and affecting his left hip, leading to a painful PGA Championship during which he needed to be worked on mid-round. Limited in his mobility and gritting his teeth through pain, he was still in the mix through 54 holes.

“He was finding his way to athlete himself out of it,” Samuel said. “But he was beginning to ask so much of his left hip, too. The next thing would have been his back if he’d kept going. As much as this guy loves to compete, he said, ‘I just can’t keep doing this because we’re getting nowhere.’ We needed to downshift and completely reconstruct from the bottom up.”

Koepka withdrew from the FedExCup Playoffs and U.S. Open, rededicating himself to a strength and conditioning program, rehabbing for at least two hours a day, six days a week. He rented a house in San Diego and set up camp there for months. Since last fall, he’s only been home in South Florida for 25 days.

This time, they took a comprehensive approach to his rehab. Koepka underwent a platelet-rich plasma injection in October that allowed him to “push to the next level,” but Samuel also designed a plan of isometrics (such as wall sits with weights), eccentrics (slow squats) and then loading exercises with heavy weights. 

“Part of the problem was I had to push through the pain to make it better,” Koepka said. “That’s more of a mental thing, and it’s kinda tough, right? Like, this hurts, but you have to keep doing it, you have to get lower, you have to keep pushing.”


Koepka reflects on long road back to top

Koepka reflects on long road back to top

For years, Koepka, 30, has gotten credit for the types of exercises that can resonate with the public – a strong squat press, or repping 275 pounds on the bench. He likes challenging himself in the gym alongside Samuel’s NFL clients. He likes standing on the first tee in a tight polo shirt, feeling a little muscle soreness. “Knowing that you’re a badass, that’s a huge thing for him,” Samuel said. “That psychological advantage of feeling like you just did something positive, how do you measure that?” But that’s not the core of Koepka’s program, which is mostly functional and multi-directional exercises. It might not go viral on Instagram, but where he really makes a difference, Samuel said, is during his two core stabilization days, when he focuses on his back, abs and glutes.

Within a month, Koepka had ramped up his intensity and focused on a return to competition. Key benchmarks were cleared. At the CJ Cup at Shadow Creek, he reported no issues with his left knee, swinging freely and posting up on bunker shots without discomfort. A few weeks later, in the days leading up to the Houston Open, he trained with Samuel at the Astros facility. Baseball players typically have strong lower bodies and leg drive – that’s where they get their power – but they couldn’t keep up with Koepka pushing 800-plus pounds on the leg press.

“That was cool to see,” Samuel said, “and we saw him light up quite a bit, because we knew this is going to work. He was extremely happy and upbeat. He wouldn’t shut the hell up he was talking so much. And you know him. I was like, Dude, who are you right now?

“But you could see how happy he was, how optimistic he was. That was the first glimpse that there’s light at the end of the tunnel.”

In a sure sign he was back, Koepka posted consecutive top-10s last fall but grumbled about his results. One round, his iron play betrayed him. The next, his putter. At times, he battled a stiff neck after sleeping wrong one night in San Diego. When he missed three cuts in a row for the first time in his career, he responded with that private club decapitation in his living room – and then the workouts to the point of exhaustion.

“There’s no better stress-reliever than pushing weight,” Koepka said. “I didn’t care what I did. I just wanted to do a lot and do as many as I could.”

“I wanted to get him numb, to get him out of his head and into his happy place, which is his physicality,” Samuel said. “He’s so athletic that he has an advantage. So use that. He can separate himself because he’s so capable in the weight room.”

That separation was apparent on the back nine at TPC Scottsdale, where Koepka played the last six holes in 5 under and captured the Phoenix Open for his eighth Tour title. He followed it up with a tie for second in the WGC at Concession. Usually scrambling to find his form in time for the Masters, he’s currently ranked fifth in the Tour’s strokes gained: total statistic and now has a rebuilt body that can stand up to the rigors of a full season.

“I put in the work,” Koepka said, “and it’s just now that I’m starting to see it.”

“The hard work and the dark places are what gives the beauty to the moment,” Samuel said. “That’s why we saw the emotion – because of the darkness of where he was, wondering if he’s ever going to be that guy who can go out there and dominate, thinking about so much has been taken away from him, and then he’s getting kicked in the teeth.

“It’s inspiration for everybody: It’s OK to feel down. It’s OK to feel like crap. But what are you going to do? And Brooks went to work.”