Hopefully no one informs Brooks Koepka that, despite taking home half of the major hardware in 2018, he only landed at No. 3 on our list of the year’s biggest newsmakers.
After all, that’s the type of information that could fuel a grand-slam bid in 2019.
Koepka’s narrative, perceived or otherwise, was at the crux of his resurgent summer. There was a lingering sense among his tight-knit camp that his U.S. Open triumph last year at Erin Hills was written off as a fluke – more a product of an outlier golf course than a testament to his overall game. That even after following Dustin Johnson’s name on the trophy, he hadn’t left the shadow of his friend and workout partner.
But what might frustrate others turned into motivation for Koepka, as he became the first repeat champion at the U.S. Open in nearly 30 years and added a PGA Championship title two months later to leave little doubt about his major credentials.
It was an amazing rise, and one that seemed incredibly unlikely as spring began to blossom. Koepka had finished last at the year-end Hero World Challenge, and he had brought up the rear at the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. Something was clearly not right, and that something proved to be a partial tendon tear in his wrist that sidelined him for 16 weeks. As Patrick Reed slipped into the green jacket, Koepka watched from home.
The comeback began in May, and there were quickly signs that Koepka would eschew any sort of learning curve. A final-round albatross highlighted his week at TPC Sawgrass, although that effort very nearly ended in disaster when a freak range incident elicited fears of an injury relapse. But Koepka (and a fortunate cart driver) emerged unscathed, and a runner-up finish two weeks later at Colonial proved he once again had all the shots.
But as a chaotic leaderboard emerged at Shinnecock Hills, there was little talk of the defending champ. Attention went to Tiger Woods’ woes, or Reed’s bid for back-to-back majors, or Phil Mickelson’s theatrics that highlighted a Saturday that the USGA wanted to forget. In the midst of it all, Koepka kept plodding right along: rebounding from an opening 75 with a second-round 66, then doing just enough over the weekend to stave off Johnson and a hard-charging Tommy Fleetwood.
With Curtis Strange walking with his group during the final round as part of the TV broadcast, Koepka became the first player to successfully defend a U.S. Open title since Strange did it in 1988-89 and erased any notion that his triumph at Erin Hills was merely the byproduct of advantageous course setup.
“I mean, I always feel like I’m overlooked,” Koepka said after completing the back-to-back. “I could care less. It doesn’t bug me. I just kind of keep doing what I’m doing, keep plugging away, kind of behind closed doors sometimes, which is nice, kind of the way I’d like to keep it.”
While his win at Shinnecock was notable for a variety of reasons, it wouldn’t have been enough to put him at No. 3 on any year-end list. The second half of Koepka’s double-dip came at steamy Bellerive, where he outlasted Tiger Woods to become the first with two majors in the same season since Jordan Spieth in 2015.
But even in St. Louis, with memories of the U.S. Open fresh in his mind, Koepka noticed that he didn’t receive any interview requests after an opening-round 69. That perceived slight provided just enough fuel for the rest of the week, where he added three rounds of 66 or better to ensure that every media member on site wanted a word with him.
“When I look at what I’ve done in the past two months, it’s incredible,” Koepka said with the Wanamaker Trophy beside him. “Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you and told you there was no way, no chance. And to do it is really incredible.”
In the span of a few short weeks, Koepka shrugged off any hint of one-hit wonder and stamped his name as an eventual Hall of Famer. With three major titles to match his brawny physique, he’s now the poster boy for a modern approach to the game: hit the gym hard, and hit the driver harder.
A third win at the CJ Cup in South Korea in October, still just his second PGA Tour title of the non-major variety, served as a fitting coda for a memorable year. It also took him to No. 1 in the world rankings for the first time in his career, a spot that he currently occupies, and came in his first start since being named PGA Tour Player of the Year.
But Koepka’s 2018 will be remembered for the majors, and for the cool calm he displayed while taking down one of the USGA’s toughest venues and then one of the game’s greatest champions. It was after denying Woods a 15th major at Bellerive that Koepka was asked about his image. Do three major titles, including two in the same summer, mean that he’ll now receive the appreciation he deserves?
Koepka flashed a wry grin and delivered a simple answer.
“I hope so,” he said.