SOUTHAMPTON, N.Y. – If the Masters is defined by roars on Sunday afternoon, the U.S. Open is all about the groans that echo from sunrise Thursday to sunset Sunday. It is as much a test of endurance as of skill, each competitor gradually worn down as inevitably as a river smooths a pebble.
For the longest time there was a “U.S. Open player” – a prototype who thrived in this inhospitable environment, who could endure the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune over four rounds.
“Specific characters won this tournament. Curtis Strange – he was a U.S. Open champion. His game was perfect. He was the prototypical mean, hard, determined, grinder,” said Claude Harmon III, who has coached Brooks Koepka for five years.
There were others, too. Guys like Hale Irwin, Lee Janzen, Payne Stewart, Retief Goosen. Multiple winners all. What separates that type from Brooks Koepka? Start with their routines on the morning of a U.S. Open final round.
“What did I do? Tried unsuccessfully to sleep in. Ate breakfast. Got to the course early. Putted a little. Wasted time by wandering around the clubhouse. Ate again,” Janzen said.
Koepka – who hasn’t finished outside the top 18 in golf’s toughest major in the last five years – woke Sunday morning, went to the gym and benched 286 pounds 15 times.
That’s the new prototype for success at America’s national open.
And at every other major, for that matter.
“You’re seeing a bunch of guys in this younger generation who just do what they do,” Harmon said. “They show up at courses and say ‘I’m just going to do what I do.’ Take a guy like Brooks, who is tough, and throw length into the equation, throw good putting into the equation, and it’s a guy who doesn’t really look at any golf course and say ‘I can’t win here.’ I mean he hits his 3-iron 285 yards!”
Attitude matters, of course. Always has in this event. In that, too, Koepka has been gifted with a natural advantage.
“He flatlines, like DJ,” said Harmon, who also coaches World No. 1 Dustin Johnson. “They don’t get real up, they don’t get real down. In a major, particularly this one, that even keel really helps him.”
That impassive calm surely helped Koepka when he stood 7-over-par on the 22nd hole of the tournament Friday. He played 6-under golf all the way to the trophy presentation. The old-school grinders would admire that in the kid.
Koepka’s image is of a man so laid back as to be almost horizontal. But don’t confuse being calm with a lack of fire, Harmon cautions.
“He’s one of the most competitive people I know. He plays with a huge chip on his shoulder,” he said. “The other night on Golf Channel he didn’t even make the notables list. He’s the defending champion! He notices that stuff. It fuels him for sure.”
While other players burst onto the PGA Tour with great fanfare, Koepka was making his bones in far-flung precincts like Kazakhstan, where he labored on the minor-league European Challenge Tour.
“He didn’t get through Q-school in the U.S. Didn’t get through European Tour Q-school. He had to go over and make it on the Challenge Tour and get a battlefield promotion,” Harmon said.
“It was very important for him that he won a major before Jon Rahm, before Justin Thomas, before Rickie Fowler, before a lot of the people who are far more popular and get a lot more press.”
In that respect, Koepka harkens back to the Open specialists of old, the dogged types who would drill even their own insecurities for fuel. But the 28-year-old Floridian leaves that defiance behind when he walks off the final green.
“He never pouts, he never moans. He’s not one of these guys who if he plays bad and you’re supposed to go to dinner says, ‘Nah, I’m not going.’ It’s, ‘Let’s go to the range and fix this and I’ll see you at 8 for dinner.’ He’s that guy,” said Harmon, who stayed in a home near the course this week with Koepka, his agent and a chef from The Floridian Golf Club, where he often practices. “He loves to come back to the house and sit on the couch. We watched World Cup. Watched a movie. He isn’t a golf nerd. He loves having a team of people around him.”
Being social is not a common trait among the guys who have owned the Open. Few men ordered more room service than Lee Trevino, another two-time champion. But what he does share with those ghosts of Opens old is this: his name is on the trophy most known as the most arduous test in the game. Twice. Back to back.
“He was low guy in the majors last year. He was second lowest the year before,” Harmon said, taking a justifiable pride in his man’s ability to condition himself for the only events that really matter. “If he played every week like he plays in majors, he’d be the number one player in the world.” Gwk