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Storylines of the Year, No. T-2: Koepka speaks mind, cements status as No. 1

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GolfChannel.com is counting down the top storylines of 2019. Here's a look at the list, from those that just missed the cut to those that dominated the year:

And tied with McIlroy for second on our list is how Brooks Koepka, in continuing to be a major force, found his voice in the game and established himself as the world No. 1.

 

WHY IT MATTERED

Last fall, Deadspin published a comprehensive list of “The 19 Boringest Athletes of All Time.”

Brooks Koepka has long craved recognition for his supreme talent, but, um, not like this – described by the author as the “world’s dullest golfer,” a “vacuous presence” and “golfing chloroform.”

To be fair, Koepka won’t ever be known for any on-course histrionics; his style of play is more brawny than beautiful, and the former hothead has adopted a what-me-worry attitude to access his best stuff. But boring? No, not anymore. Not since he made the conscious decision to open up more in 2019, turning what used to be mundane press briefings into appointment viewing.

So why the sea change, because surely it wasn’t the Deadspin list? Koepka noticed how NBA stars had become increasingly vocal on a wide variety of issues, but unlike LeBron James or Chris Paul, Koepka never believed that he had the necessary standing to speak his mind. That changed last year, when Koepka followed up his 2017 U.S. Open victory with two more majors and closed in on world No. 1. As one of the game’s top players, Koepka felt a responsibility – an obligation, really – to wield his power and influence the game.

Koepka: No Rory 'rivalry'; I have all the majors

World No. 1 Brooks Koepka downplayed the notion that there is any sort of rivalry between him and reigning FedExCup champ Rory McIlroy.

And so this year, Koepka took no prisoners, riffing bluntly on slow play, commentators, regular-season tournaments and would-be rivals, his confidence in the press tent growing the better he performed. Nothing and no one were spared from his scorched-earth approach. His brutal honesty rankled a few of his peers – perhaps contributing to why Koepka wasn’t voted PGA Tour Player of the Year, despite a three-win, one-major campaign – but also earned admiration from other leading stars. “He talked some s--- in the media room and he’s backed up every word of it,” Xander Schauffele said. “As a competitor, I have the utmost respect for him, and I think it’s awesome.” 

Indeed, Koepka’s ruthlessness remains a refreshing antidote to the image-conscious 20-somethings who populate today’s Tour.

As long as he keeps winning, Koepka won’t stop talking.

 

HOW IT PLAYED OUT

It’s not often that the undisputed No. 1 player in the game generates more headlines off the course than on it. But such was the year 2019 for Koepka, who continued his assault on both the record books and his competition.

Sergio Garcia and Bryson DeChambeau were in his crosshairs first – the former because of his child-like outburst at the Saudi Invitational, the latter because of an “embarrassing” pre-shot routine. Railing against slow play was a consistent theme for Koepka, who said that golf’s governing bodies didn’t have the “balls” to punish players; he revealed that he sometimes hid in the bathroom for five minutes so the group would be put on the clock and then they’d have to play at his pace. Extreme, certainly, but Koepka was unflinching in his critiques: If he can calculate the yardage, select a club and hit his shot in 40 seconds or less, why can’t everyone else?

But a few months later, it was Koepka’s turn to catch some heat. After another pedestrian performance at The Players, he revealed to GolfChannel.com that he’d intentionally dropped more than 20 pounds and that the weight loss had begun to affect his game. It was clear that he’d slimmed down for vanity purposes (it was later announced that he’d posed nude in ESPN’s The Body Issue), and that decision drew the ire of Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee, who called Koepka’s diet “the most reckless self-sabotage that I have ever seen of an athlete in his prime.” That began a spirited, months-long back and forth between the player and broadcaster, who also questioned whether Koepka, at that point a three-time major winner, was a generational talent.

Little brother no more: Koepka sends message staring down DJ at the PGA

Brooks Koepka stared down his former 'big brother' Dustin Johnson on Sunday at the PGA Championship and cemented his status as the bully going forward on the PGA Tour.

Piling even more chips onto his sculpted shoulders, Koepka responded how he seemingly always does – with top finishes in the biggest events, including a wire-to-wire defense at the PGA Championship, another title at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational and a runner-up at the U.S. Open, where he was vying for a third consecutive national championship. He became the fifth player in history to record a top-4 finish in every major, but curiously he was a non-factor in many of his other regular-season starts, oftentimes looking disinterested or unmotivated. Asked about the disparity in results, Koepka said it’s simple: He doesn’t put as much energy into non-majors, going so far as to say that he doesn’t practice before them. (This wasn’t entirely true: In the fall, he revealed that he wasn’t able to practice as much this year because of a lingering knee issue.) 

Koepka’s dismissiveness likely didn’t sit well with the Tour’s middle class, who grind each week for their livelihood, but – guess what? – he wasn’t bothered by that, either. In fact, the only thing that seemed to get under his skin was the Player of the Year award, which went, somewhat surprisingly, to Rory McIlroy. The vote totals weren’t disclosed, but Koepka shrugged off the snub by comparing himself to LeBron James – because LeBron, he said, has been the best player more often than his four MVPs suggests. That vote, in addition to their head-to-head splits in Memphis and Atlanta, seemed to set the table for a potential rivalry with McIlroy, who had soared into the No. 2 spot in the world rankings. But Koepka threw cold water on that, too, woofing that he’s peerless – McIlroy, he painfully noted, hasn’t won a major since Koepka burst on the scene.

By year’s end, it was hard to tell which left a more lasting impression: Koepka’s golf shots, or the ones he took at his competition.

 

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