PGA Championship 2018: Brooks Koepka deserves our attention, and it shouldn’t have taken so long
The big-bopping hitter with the buttery soft touch now has three majors to his name
ST. LOUIS — Brooks Koepka is a tough guy to miss. He’s the one with the million-dollar smile, steal-yo-girl biceps and the mightiest swing in golf. He’s built like Ben Watson, but he putts like Ben Crenshaw. The next time he’s rattled will be the first. He’s now won three of the past six majors he’s entered and joined some elite company in the three-major club (more on that in a minute).
And yet, despite all of that, I’m afraid somehow we have missed him.
Koepka held off — I can’t believe I’m typing these words — a 64 from Tiger Woods on Sunday at a major championship and hoisted yet another major trophy at the end of the week. After two bogeys in his first five holes, he played the final 13 flawlessly with five birdies and a closing 66 to win by two. All of this with Woods doing his thing ahead of him.
“You could hear the roars when we were on 10 and 11, and then you could kind of hear it trickle down as they changed the leaderboards all the way through,” said Koepka. “You could hear a different roar like every 30 seconds. So we knew what was going on. It’s pretty obvious when Tiger makes a birdie. I think everybody at the golf course cheers for him. I’m sure everyone is rooting for him.”
Tiger’s 64, though remarkable, wasn’t enough to catch Koepka. A 62 would have put him in a playoff. It would have taken a 61 from Big Cat for the outright win.
Brooks Koepka shares how special it was to compete against his two childhood favorites, Tiger Woods and Adam Scott.#PGAChamp pic.twitter.com/FbaxVxzLs0
— PGA of America (@PGA) August 13, 2018
Brooks Koepka kind of flexed on Tiger Woods (of all people) on a Sunday at a major championship.
“I remember when I watched Adam win at the Players. I loved his golf swing. He’s got the best golf swing ever, I think. It’s so pretty to watch. He’s one of the nicest guys once you meet him, too. He really is,” Koepka said. “And then, I mean, Tiger for obvious reasons. As a kid growing up, that’s the whole reason that all of us, or people in my generation, are even playing golf was because of him. And to duel it out with them, it’s pretty neat. I don’t think I ever dreamed of that, that situation that I was in today.
“It really is surreal. It’s really cool.”
No category exists for a golfer whose four wins include three majors, all before his 30th birthday. We don’t know what to do with that. I’ll struggle to figure this out for the rest of 2018 and into 2019. It is irreconcilable that someone could win three of his first 20 major starts but only one of his first 80 non-major starts on the PGA Tour.
I suppose we should start with what we know:
- Koepka has joined Woods, Jordan Spieth, Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus as the only Americans with three majors by the age of 28 since World War II.
- Koepka has joined Woods, Nicklaus, Gene Sarazen and Ben Hogan as the only golfers to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year.
- Koepka joined Spieth and Rory McIlroy as the only golfers to win multiple majors in a single season over the past decade.
- Koepka has won three of his past six majors and finished in the top 15 a stunning 11 (!) times at majors since 2014.
And he didn’t even play this year’s Masters because of an injury.
“Three majors at 28,” said Koepka. “It’s a cool feeling. It really is. You know, hopefully I can stay healthy. I’ve kind of had some trouble with that over the past two years, three years, whatever it was. Missed the British [Open] and then to miss Augusta. You know, I think I’m much more disciplined now, so I should be able to play every major, making sure my body’s healthy.”
Maybe for now we can think of Koepka the way baseball thought of John Smoltz. The former Braves pitcher was terrific in the regular season. A Hall of Fame pitcher. And he was even better in the playoffs. It’s easy to deride athletes who show up big in big moments but don’t perform when the chips are up. Why don’t you do that all time? Even they struggle to explain it.
“For some reason, I can really tune in in the majors, and I have no idea why,” said Koepka earlier in the week. “They really get my attention.”
Now he has our attention. Koepka wasn’t hard to miss before. He clubs the ball and picks off trophies — big ones, not middling ones or plates or medals. He collects. He has done so at an historical rate thus far, and now we’re staring at a bizarre scenario in which Koepka could legitimately win as many or more majors than he does normal PGA Tour events.
“I would think [my game] suits the majors, having won three of the last six I’ve played in. So I guess [it] suits them. Need to figure out Augusta a little bit, haven’t quite had the results there that I’ve had elsewhere. But this golf course set up beautifully for me,” Koepka said. “I’m looking forward to the next few years. If I can stay healthy and actually show up to a major, I feel like I’ve got a good chance.”
In some ways, this is fitting. Koepka’s game is as impossible as his resume. He pounds the horizon with his fists and then releases preposterous chip shots with the delicateness of a man half his size. It doesn’t compute that the man who led the PGA Championship in driving distance and finished second from tee to green would also finish top 20 in putting. That’s not a fluke, either. It’s who he is, and it’s a harbinger for what the future looks like, too.
“I’m excited for the next few years,” said Koepka. “As fans, like, I’m a fan of golf. You should be excited. I mean, Tiger’s come back. You look at what Dustin’s doing, Justin [Thomas], Rory, Spieth … I mean, it’s a great time to be a golf fan. I can’t wait to duel it out with them.”