2018 U.S. Open: Return of the regular guy in Brooks Koepka

Brooks Koepka holds up the winning trophy after the U.S. Open golf tournament Sunday, June 18, 2017, at Erin Hills in Erin, Wis. (AP Photo/Chris Carlson) Chris Carlson/Associated Press

2018 U.S. Open: Return of the regular guy in Brooks Koepka

Professional

2018 U.S. Open: Return of the regular guy in Brooks Koepka

The question that follows every first-time major winner is an obvious one. Entering the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, one year removed from that final-round 67 in southeast Wisconsin, we have no satisfying answers. Nothing really has changed since last Father’s Day at Erin Hills, and the question is more pertinent than ever.

What’s next for Brooks Koepka?

“I actually feel like exactly where I was last year at the same time,” Koepka said. “Feel like I was playing great. Sometimes the scores weren’t really reflecting it, but hopefully in a couple weeks’ time it’ll be the same result.”

Perception is a funny thing. Major victories are viewed as life-changing moments, but how much has really changed over the past 12 months?

Koepka, 28, was ranked No. 10 in the world when he left Erin Hills, and he’s No. 11 now. He hasn’t won since. And it’s pretty clear the things that have actually changed – exposure, reputation, number of autograph requests – don’t matter to the reigning national champion.

“I don’t know, man. I just kind of move on with it,” Koepka said. “You say hi to whoever it is and, you know, shake their hand or take a picture with them and kind of go on. Just try to make that a memorable experience for them if they do say hi. Other than that, it’s just me. Honestly, I’m just a regular guy. I’m not trying to be anybody I’m not.”

It seems Koepka’s lofty personal goals matter most. They include winning more than once each season and multiple major titles. He thinks he’s talented enough to do it and that if he doesn’t, he’s underachieved.

Those goals were put on hold at the start of the season due to a partially torn tendon in his left wrist. He was on top of his game and riding a stretch of eight top-20 finishes in nine starts, including a T-6 at the British Open, solo sixth at the Tour Championship and T-2 at the WGC-HSBC Champions.

Then he sat out for four months, missed the Masters and basically started from scratch with a little more than a month to prepare for his title defense at Shinnecock.

The silver lining? All that time away meant Koepka was mentally refreshed when he returned in late April. And, after a T-11 in his third start back at The Players Championship and a runner-up finish at the Fort Worth Invitational, his game looks major-ready again.

“There’s nobody more excited to be here than me, I can tell you that,” Koepka said. “To get back out, it felt like it took forever. The days were very long during that four-month period and to get out, it’s refreshing to be outside and just to get started practicing. I thought that was so much fun and even finally to get back in competition, because that’s what I missed the most.”

Koepka is indeed a competitor at heart. That much was obvious during the first round of the Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow, one week after he returned from the injury at the Zurich Classic.   

Brooks Koepka hits out of a trap off the 4th fairway during Monday’s practice round at Shinnecock Hills. (Brad Penner/USA TODAY Sports)

He didn’t exactly have a chance to test the waters in the featured pairing alongside Tiger Woods and Masters champ Patrick Reed. Hordes of fans lined every fairway and green, and Koepka met a good number of them because he sprayed drives all over the property.

Koepka hit 1 of 14 fairways that day on a lengthy, difficult course. It was uncomfortable to watch at times and easily could have led to a big number.

Like a starting pitcher eking out seven innings when his command isn’t there, Koepka somehow managed to hit 10 of 18 greens in regulation and fought his way to a 1-over 72.

The following week, at The Players Championship, Koepka was warming up on the range when he noticed a tournament support staff member driving a golf cart about 15 yards in front of him. Already mid-swing while working on low cut 3-iron shots, Koepka abruptly stopped his swing because the cart was directly in his line and golf balls leaving the club face at 150 mph tend to damage the human skeletal system at close range.

A bone popped out of place in Koepka’s left wrist due to the awkward stop. He iced it all night and decided to give it a go for his 8:05 a.m. opening-round tee time the following morning.

“I’m just not gonna quit,” Koepka said. “I’ll figure out a way.”

The injury at The Players raised a few eyebrows because it didn’t sound like a typical sports injury, much less a gruesome one. And it didn’t seem to hurt his performance at TPC Sawgrass, where he tied the course record of 63 in the final round.

Typical pampered golfer, some thought.

Thing is, it’s just not true.

Koepka didn’t grow up honing his swing at the local country club. He played baseball in West Palm Beach but ultimately chose golf for a few reasons.

He worked his way through high school so he could afford his own car payments and travel to tournaments. Between work, school and golf, he didn’t have time for baseball.

Koepka had a pretty regular upbringing by most accounts, which explains why he does seem to be a pretty regular guy.

“He’s pretty chill,” said Matt Kuchar’s caddie, John Wood, who shared a team room with Koepka at the 2016 Ryder Cup and 2017 Presidents Cup. “I don’t think he gets flustered at all. I just think he’s a chill guy. That’s the best way I can describe it. He’s a chill dude.”

Koepka would rather watch baseball than golf when he’s home. He’ll talk about things like course conditions and club selection when asked, but he’s not a golf nerd. He’d rather talk about the finer points of hitting to the opposite field to advance a runner on second.

Brooks Koepka helped the United States score a lopsided victory in the 2017 President’s Cup golf tournament at Liberty National Golf Course. (Kyle Terada/USA TODAY Sports)

After the victory at Erin Hills, he flew directly to Las Vegas to party with all his friends, Dustin Johnson among them, because, let’s be honest, isn’t that what most regular people would do?

He and Johnson are good friends but can’t even remember playing a casual round together. They’d rather hang out on the boat or lift weights.

“He’s one of my best buds,” Johnson said. “We work out together all the time. I spend a lot of time with him. He’s a hard worker. He’s fun to be around.”

Johnson, the 2016 U.S. Open champ, called Koepka the night before the final round at Erin Hills. He told him to stay patient and just keep doing what he was doing.

“It was a long phone call for us,” Koepka said. “Like, two minutes.”

Patience is still the key for Koepka. He bombs it off the tee, he never quits on a round and he’s finished inside the top 20 in strokes gained putting each of the last three seasons. He is one of the most talented under-30 players on Tour but hasn’t won at the same clip as others such as Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas.

His first major victory was a giant step, one that has eluded so many above-average talents. He consistently contended every week until the wrist injury killed so much good momentum.

Now the Koepka train is rolling again at the perfect time, and his mindset entering Shinnecock is exactly the same as it was in the moments following his breakthrough victory.

“I think this is hopefully major No. 1 and there’s many more to come,” Koepka said. Gwk

(Note: This story appeared in the June 2018 issue of Golfweek.)

Latest

More Golfweek
Home