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Koepka Fulfilled Huge Potential With 2017 U.S. Open Win

June 11, 2018 Southampton, N.Y. By Alan Shipnuck
Brooks Koepka added his name to the illustrious list of U.S. Open champions last June at Erin Hills. (USGA/JD Cuban)

Brooks Koepka’s victory in last year’s U.S. Open at Erin Hills, a vast canvas in the rolling Wisconsin countryside, was a mash note to smash-mouth golf. It wasn’t just that Koepka averaged 322.1 yards per drive or tied an Open record by hitting 86.1 percent of greens in regulation, or that his 16-under-par total tied Rory McIlroy for the best winning score in championship history. No, it was the way he looked while doing it.

Koepka, 28, favors some of tightest sleeves on the PGA Tour, the better to display biceps about as big as the waist of some of his elfin competitors. He has the square jaw of Dick Tracy and is the great-nephew of former Pittsburgh Pirates shortstop Dick Groat, the 1960 National League MVP; little wonder that the 6-foot, 205-pound Koepka carries himself with an unmistakable jock swagger. His macho play at Erin Hills – and the effect it had on his competition – was certainly no surprise to Steve Stricker, who as captain for last fall’s USA Presidents Cup squad monitored Koepka’s debut at the 2016 Ryder Cup.

“He looks like he wants to fight you, like he wants to punch you in the mouth,” said Stricker of Koepka, who went 3-1-0 at Hazeltine National in a 17-11 USA victory and followed it up with a 2-2-0 record in the USA’s 2017 romp at Liberty National. “That’s what I like about him – he’s got an edge. For sure, it’s intimidating to play against. You get a guy up there who is built like a linebacker and pounds the heck out of the ball, then looks over like he wants to brawl, yeah, that has an effect.”

The U.S. Open was only the second PGA Tour victory for Koepka, but it didn’t rate as a surprise to golf cognoscenti, for whom Koepka has been a cult favorite going back to at least 2012. That’s when this three-time All-American at Florida State University lit out for the Challenge Tour, the minor leagues of the European Tour. Koepka had gone overseas only after washing out at the PGA Tour’s Qualifying Tournament, but he made the most of this self-imposed exile, winning four Challenge tournaments by a total of 23 strokes, finally delivering the results that his manifold physical talents had long promised. This led friend and colleague Bud Cauley to observe at the time, “Brooks has won more tournaments in the last six months than the rest of his life combined.”

Crisscrossing Europe and parts of Asia to play in tournaments far from the limelight was a growth experience for a kid who enjoyed an admittedly comfortable upbringing in West Palm Beach, Fla.

“He’s slept in his car in Kazakhstan,” said Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott. “He’s slept in a B&B with four of us in one room and struggled along the way. That’s helped him appreciate where he is.”

In late 2013, Koepka was hitting balls on the range at the Floridian Golf Club when a mutual acquaintance convinced Claude Harmon to take a look at this raw talent. Along with his celebrated father Butch, Claude was already coaching Dustin Johnson. He was accustomed to fending off the advances of young pros hungry for proven guidance.

“I was already pretty busy with DJ, so to take on someone else they would have to jump out at you so much,” Harmon said. “I watched Brooks hit a couple of balls and went, ‘Wow!’ You just don’t see speed like that every day.”

The smitten Harmon suggested to Koepka an easier way to hit his preferred fade, guiding the player’s club through the desired swing path. Koepka did as he was told, launched a few bombs that fluttered gently left-to-right, and said, “Man, it can’t be this easy.”

“Well, it has to be,” replied Harmon, “because the sport you’re playing is complicated enough.”

They’ve been working together ever since. Basic mechanics and a few simple thoughts unlocked Koepka’s action. “The harder he swings, the straighter the ball goes,” Harmon said.

In 2015, the year Koepka won his first PGA Tour event, the Waste Management Phoenix Open, Tiger Woods’ former caddie Steve Williams told Golf Digest, “Once in a great while a player comes along who hits a golf ball the way it was meant to be hit. Powerful, piercing, the perfect trajectory. Of the young players out there, one I’ve seen has that special ball flight: Brooks Koepka. Adam [Scott] and I were paired with him at The Open Championship last year, and from his first tee shot on, I thought, This kid is special. Obviously, he’s searching to find the other parts of the puzzle, but I haven’t seen a ball flight like that since Tiger, and before that, Johnny Miller.”

Across 2015 and ’16, Koepka had three top 10s in the majors; still, something was missing. Enter his pal Dustin Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champion. In late 2016, Koepka was renovating his home in Jupiter, Fla., and he mentioned to Johnson that he was going to rent a house in the interim. According to Johnson’s trainer, Joey Diovisalvi, “DJ says to Brooks, ‘Bro, stay with me, I’ve got plenty of space. I’ll teach you how to drive a boat, bro.’”

For six months, Koepka crashed with Johnson and his family, and got a close-up look at Johnson’s ascent to the top of the world ranking. After a long courting phase, last spring Koepka convinced Diovisalvi to take him on as a client, too. “He came in as such a cocky little punk,” said Diovisalvi. “At the time, Brooks was 18th in the world, and he says to me, ‘I only have 17 spots to go to relieve DJ of his position.’” But Koepka backed up the trash talk with a seemingly limitless capacity for work.

In the three months leading up to last year’s U.S. Open, Koepka packed on 10 more pounds of muscle and felt his game peaking as he arrived at Erin Hills, where he had played the 2011 U.S. Amateur. Finding wide fairways, little wind and greens softened by rain, Koepka made the most of the benign conditions; for the week he hit more than a 7-iron into a par 4 only once. (A big man with soft hands, he also finished third in Strokes Gained–Putting.) With rounds of 67-70-68, Koepka was tied for second heading into the final round but, typically, had been overshadowed by Rickie Fowler’s flashy 65 on Thursday and Justin Thomas’ electric 63 on Saturday.

These young, telegenic Americans were all seeking their first major-championship victory—two months later Thomas would get his at the PGA Championship—but for Koepka it was perhaps more personal. “He’s never had the acclaim of a Justin Thomas or a Rickie Fowler,” said Harmon. “It gives Brooks a little chip on his shoulder. It drives him.”

Koepka announced his intentions on Sunday by birdieing the first two holes. Fowler and Thomas quickly faded, but the feisty, 5-foot-7 Brian Harman was game. He and Koepka were tied for the lead until Harman bogeyed the 12th hole from the fescue just as Koepka was pouring in an 8-footer to save par at 13. Koepka then unleashed all of his want and will into a burst of three straight birdies that was a testament to his varied talents. Just like that, a tense final round turned into a blowout. When it was over, Koepka said, “This week I honestly don’t think I ever got nervous. I just stayed in the moment.”

Between the ropes Koepka can be affectless to the point of seeming aloof, but at Erin Hills he couldn’t disguise how much he wanted the victory. “That’s probably the most emotion I’ve ever showed coming down the stretch,” he said in the champion’s press conference. “I mean, it feels amazing to get my name on this trophy with so many other great names. It’s truly an honor.”

Koepka’s breakthrough did nothing to diminish his hunger. In his first start after Erin Hills, he contended in The Open Championship at Royal Birkdale, ultimately finishing tied for sixth, and he went on to finish 10th in the FedExCup standings. But in December, at the Hero World Challenge, he began to feel discomfort in his left wrist. He played through it, then soldiered through four more rounds at the season-opening 2018 Sentry Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii. After finishing in last place, Koepka was diagnosed with a partial tear in the extensor carpi ulnaris (ECU) tendon, sidelining him for three months.

Still, he figures to be a threat at Shinnecock Hills, a course that has always rewarded quality ball-striking. (Then again, as Johnson said, “Brooks’ game fits pretty much every golf course.”) Given how far Koepka has traveled, a little wrist injury is just a short detour. This journey was the theme of an impromptu victory party on Sunday night at Erin Hills. Koepka gathered his people in for a toast: Harmon and Elliott; new girlfriend Jena Sims, an actress; and agent Blake Smith. They held aloft champagne flutes and cans of beer, while Koepka hoisted a cocktail.

“It’s been a long road,” Elliott said.

Golf’s most dangerous bruiser flashed a big, boyish smile. “But we made it,” Koepka said, and then he took a greedy gulp.

Alan Shipnuck is a senior writer for Golf magazine.