NORTON, Mass. – How are you feeling?
It’s the question Brooks Koepka has despised this year. He never wanted to make excuses for his poor play, or to let his opponents know just how much he was hurting. They weren’t about to box him out in the paint or deliver a shot over the middle of the field, but still Koepka denied, obfuscated, contradicted. He toughed it out. He adopted a hyper-secrecy about his ailments ... which in turn only added to the number of queries.
Two weeks ago, during the second round of the PGA Championship, he required three visits from a physiotherapist to work on a tight hip muscle. His response? “It will be fine. It’s something I’m not worried about.”
Last week, after missing the cut at the Wyndham Championship, Koepka appeared to be laboring and complained of being unable to post up on his left side. His response? “It’s not the knee.”
But it is something “physical,” he conceded, and it’s troubling enough that Koepka withdrew from The Northern Trust on Wednesday with what was described as “lingering” injuries to his knee and hip. Only 97th in the FedExCup standings despite playing six weeks in a row, Koepka’s disappointing 2019-20 season is over, and it’s reasonable to wonder how productive he’ll be the rest of the calendar year if he’s unable to properly recuperate.
Immediately, speculation turned to his status for next month’s U.S. Open, the tournament best suited to his smash-mouth, grind-it-out style. His manager sought to downplay the severity of this latest setback, saying that Koepka will rest the next few weeks “to ensure that he’s ready to go for the start of the 2020-21 season,” which begins Sept. 8.
“It’s never a good time,” Rory McIlroy said, “but it’s a better time than any other to get it right. ... I think it’s smart on his part to do that and hopefully come back healthy and come back ready to play.”
But there are no guarantees of that, of course, and Koepka’s knee is starting to become a long-term concern. Though he’s remained coy about the issue (previously it was a partially torn patellar tendon) and how long it’s bothered him, he’s been talking about his knee publicly for at least a year. He underwent a stem-cell procedure last fall, reaggravated it when he slipped on wet concrete in South Korea and missed three months. Once cleared, he still didn’t play up to his high standards. So out of sorts was Koepka, remember, that on the eve of The Players in March, he flew to see swing coach Butch Harmon in Las Vegas and called an impromptu team meeting.
The 3 1/2-month coronavirus shutdown should have come at a perfect time. Gifted a total reset, he could rest and rehab his body. He could sort out his swing. But other than a sterling final round at the RBC Heritage, he wasn’t a factor until his title defense at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, where he chased Justin Thomas down the stretch before a water ball on the 72nd hole. The following week, at the PGA, he was two shots off the lead heading into the final round before fading badly on Sunday. He’ll end this lost season with only two top-25s in 13 starts.
So did his swing let him down?
Or was it his body?
It was only last month when Koepka, in a rare admission, said that he’d undergone an MRI exam and that “nothing is improved” in his knee since last fall. “We’ll figure it out when we’re done,” he had said, ominously, but it’s unclear when that time could come.
Koepka’s entire year centers around the majors, and the U.S. Open is five weeks away.
The Masters is two months after that.
And the start of the new year? Less than two months later.
There’s no obvious time for a shutdown, for doctors to look into his ailing knee and hip, for the former world No. 1 to regain full strength. That annoying question – how are you feeling? – could nag him all the way into 2021.