MEMPHIS, Tenn. – Given Brooks Koepka’s bonafides, his victory in the limited-field, and largely overlooked, WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational last year doesn’t exactly have the look of a seminal moment until you start to peel back the layers of his accomplishment.
At the time, the only knock against Koepka was that he didn’t really bring it unless there was major hardware on the line, as if only winning Grand Slam events is wrong in any universe.
Of his six PGA Tour titles just two – the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open and ’18 CJ Cup – were of the non-major variety, so when he closed with weekend rounds of 64-65 at TPC Southwind to beat the likes of Rory McIlroy, Jon Rahm and Tommy Fleetwood it was nothing short of a walk-off, the ultimate competitive flex for all those who loved to nitpick his resume.
In some ways it was the high-water mark of a career littered with cherished moments. On the Monday after his victory in Memphis he was No. 1 in the world, No. 1 on the FedEx Cup points list and No. 1 on most player’s ballot for the Tour’s Player of the Year award.
Since that muggy and magical day at TPC Southwind, Koepka has played 14 Tour events, including the eventually cancelled Players Championship, with just two top-10 finishes, a list that includes a tie for third at the Tour Championship, which to be fair used a strokes-based scoring format. He lost the Player of the Year trophy to McIlroy and has slipped to sixth in the world.
The root of Koepka’s issues is a knee injury that occurred when he slipped while walking on wet concrete during last fall’s CJ Cup, and not even the Tour’s three-month quarantine was enough time to allow the ailment to fully heal.
In many ways this week’s stop in Memphis, which is the front end of back-to-back weeks as defending champion with next week’s PGA Championship looming, is something of a full-circle moment.
When he left TPC Southwind last year he was on top of the golf world. He returns fresh off two missed cuts in his last three starts and at 155th on the season-long points list with just three regular-season events remaining.
“It's definitely been frustrating. It will test you mentally,” Koepka said on Wednesday. “But at the same time, I'm looking at it as a challenge and something where I know it will turn around eventually. It's going to turn around. You don't work that hard for nothing.”
Koepka is nothing if not optimistic and there are hints that his optimism is well-founded. The weekend off after missing the cut at last week’s 3M Open gave him time to work with swing coach Pete Cowen for the first time since The Players in March.
“You can do video all you want, but at the same time you can't read ball flights, is it overcutting, is it not, is it a good shot, is it a bad shot? Because you want to see the good shots just as much as you want to see the bad ones,” Koepka said. “If there was ever a good cut to miss, I think it was that one.”
There are also plenty of reasons around TPC Southwind to give Koepka hope. This is, after all, the site of his last victory and one of his most commanding performances that included a three-stroke triumph. He also remains as confident as ever, which is no huge surprise given his track record.
Asked on Wednesday if his recent struggles have impacted his “mindset,” the brilliantly stoic Koepka responded, “I’m defending, aren’t I?”
Behind that wall of confidence, however, is an injury that can’t be dismissed so easily. Koepka had an MRI on his knee two weeks ago at the Memorial and he said there has been no improvement. He also explained that the injury is currently not severe enough to require surgery.
“The tear has to be worse to go under the knife, but we'll see how it goes. We'll see when my season ends and go get stem cell again most likely and figure it out from there,” said Koepka, who added that his workouts, specifically his cardio work, has been limited to a single bike ride a week.
The only real question now is when that decision will need to be made. Koepka has played five of the first seven events since the restart and it’s unlikely he’d add the Wyndham Championship, the regular-season finale, to his schedule. That makes the next two weeks particularly crucial, and not just because the ebb and flow of the last year has come full circle.
“I’m starting to see signs of it. Now it's just about going and doing it. Whether it be this week, next week, a month from now, two months from now, whatever it's going to be, it will pay off,” Koepka said.
Koepka has understandably taken the long view as he works his way through the worst slump of his career, and he probably doesn’t need to be reminded that this week, and next, would be better.