Brooks Koepka just won his third major in the last 14 months, and hardly anyone seems to care.
The massive St. Louis galleries for the 2018 PGA Championship went rightfully ga-ga for Tiger Woods’ Sunday charge at Bellerive, with every birdie sending a reverberating and earthquaking roar through the property. Koepka heard ’em. And perhaps the biggest roar was the last one, when Woods sank a birdie putt to lock up a Sunday 64 and a two-stroke…loss. The galleries, grateful for the incredible weekend ride that was Woods’ career-best 130, showed their appreciation with a long, sustained, 20-person-deep round of applause. Woods made their 26-year wait for another major worth it.
And then came the winner. He again nuked a drive down the middle, efficiently found the green and casually two-putted for the win. He didn’t bother with the tradition of the winner (if they’re in the final group) sinking the last putt of the week, choosing to give Adam Scott a clean sightline for his par putt despite the Aussie giving him the sign off to mark. Just a tap-in, some sheepish acknowledgement of the crowd’s impressed-but-disappointed applause and then hugs and daps for his family, girlfriend and team.
He appeared more moved his mom was there off the 18th green than hoisting the Wanamaker. So let me be Koepka’s hype man.
Koepka tied the all-time 72-hole scoring record in a major championship, stared down both of his golf idols in Woods and Scott, and he became the fifth major to win the US Open and PGA Championship in the same season. He’s 28, has no perceivable holes in his game (unless you still think a modern cut can’t win at Augusta National) and has three majors. He’s No. 2 in the world, but he’s the best golfer on the planet right now. He can bench 315 lbs., and he has feathery touch with wedges and the putter.
Brooks Koepka could be overlord of major championship golf for the next decade. We may have found The One in this generation, perhaps better than Spieth, Thomas, Johnson, McIlroy and his other peers. That should be exciting. So why doesn’t it feel like golf is reacting that way?
Let’s give it a few days. We’ve got 238 days until the Masters.
There was a lot to absorb in Tiger Woods’ performance. He posted his best-ever 72-hole, final 54-hole and final 36-hole totals in his major career. He shot a Sunday 64 that, with two better drives and two separate half-revolution rolls of the ball, could have been a 60. He’s officially back, and it finally seems like he actually believes he can do this. There was a lot of emotion in the last two major Sundays of 2018, with Woods hovering near the trophy on the final day of both and, in fact, holding the outright lead at Carnoustie for the better part of an hour. All of that came less than 8 months after even the most loyal Tiger true believer would admit they’d be thrilled if he could just finish a regulation 72-hole golf tournament pain-free.
But Koepka’s out there doing the damn thing. He started slowly in both of his major wins this year before absolutely torching the field with ruthless precision. He made mistakes, yes, but he always rebounded and never let the errors snowball. Even when he stalled on the back nine, he did so making routine-looking pars. When the big shots were needed — the drives on 14 and 17, and the 4-iron he hit to 6 feet on the 16th hole — he delivered.
As it turns out, perhaps missing the Masters recovering from surgery to repair a serious wrist tendon injury was made this run possible.
“I think sitting on the couch made me really appreciate how much I actually love this game and love competition,” he said of watching Augusta from home in April. “I don’t want to say I was depressed, but I was definitely down. And to finally have the chance to come back and play, I can’t tell you how excited I was. I couldn’t wait to get off the couch. I couldn’t wait to get up in the morning. And some of those days, I don’t think I moved off the couch at all. I got fat, gained about 15, 20 pounds. That’s never fun. And I just kept telling myself, I just kind of talked to myself, all right, one day at a time. Keep going, keep going. You’re getting closer and closer. And then finally to get the okay from the doctors, I’ve never been more focused, more driven, more excited to play and really embracing what’s around me.”
That’s coming from a guy who once bemoaned “golf nerds” and had said baseball is “in his blood.” His perspective may have changed, but it’s those ideas that make him dangerous as a competitor.
Baseball is about managing failure, where the best offensive performers fail 7 in 10 times at the plate and the most prolific home run hitters smashed dingers once every 11 or 12 at-bats. Golf is even worse, where the most gifted champions in the sport struggle to sustain a 20 percent career win rate. Every shot can be longer or closer or better. Koepka can balance a desire to always be better with accepting reality.
And it’s OK that Koepka isn’t going to be spending time debating the three Streamsong courses. He may not be particularly interested in the best Biarritz in the world. He wants to execute, no matter what’s thrown in his way. In a sense, that made him the perfect candidate to win at Bellerive, a course panned in the architecture community for its lack of imagination and straightforward set of demands. If this is what it takes to win, Koepka figures, he’ll do just that.
It seems for years Koepka has projected a public image of a talented athlete scorned — by the University of Florida, the USGA’s Walker Cup committee, golf media, whoever. He knew he was damn good, and no one seemed to notice or care. Hell, CBS announcers called the Player of the Year by “Bruce” and “Koopka.” (Joe Buck botching Koepka’s girlfriend’s name, Jena Sims, was probably the product of a research assistant’s bad Google search, though Jim Nantz never messes up family and WAGs names.) But he has his peers’ respect. Tiger Woods, at least the one we once knew, wouldn’t wait around to congratulate just anyone. He was impressed Koepka withstood everything he threw at him.
We should be, too.