PEBBLE BEACH, Calif. – Brooks Koepka is a thoroughly modern golfer in how he plays the game, a strapping athlete with the unbridled power to pulverize any golf course. It’s in how he plays the other game — the one beyond the ropes, where brands are multiplatformed and images curated —that he remains a stubborn throwback to when sporting greats just ran the tables and not their mouths.
It’s understandable that fans want their sport’s finest exponent to have a larger-than-life flair, to transcend the confines of their playing field like a Tom Brady, a Roger Federer, a LeBron James. But excellence in the arena does not presume entertainment out of it. Some greats just want to collect trophies and head home to their own couch, not to Jimmy Kimmel’s.
Today’s PGA Tour is a lucrative world for players who are all hat and no cattle, who meticulously tend careers more dependable for delivering likes on Instagram than trophies on Sundays. Koepka doesn’t lack silverware on the mantelpiece — if anything, he lacks space — but maintains an ornery disinterest in the commercial and marketing potential of Brooks, Inc.
Four times he has had opportunities to take victory laps around the late night/early morning TV circuit in New York City, a tantalizing prospect for those less accomplished golfers who have exhausted every possible way to fluff their sponsors on social media. Four times Koepka has opted to get on his plane and go elsewhere.
There’s something admirable in his refusal to play a part in the circus, but it may also explain why recently in a Canadian gym a man excitedly told Koepka that Dustin Johnson had just been working out there, blissfully unaware that he was talking to the world No. 1 who owns three majors more than DJ. Those familiar with Koepka’s motivational strategy might wonder why he didn’t take a snapshot of gym dude to use as bulletin board material.
Koepka is a man in search of an insult, some slight — real or imagined — that might be used as fuel. It’s become a predictable part of his preparation, as routine as bench presses or beating balls. We saw it again this week, when he griped about how Fox Sports weren’t sufficiently featuring him in U.S. Open promos. That his belief was ill-founded didn’t matter. He’d show them.
“I mean, why wouldn’t you?” he said. “You’ve always got to find something to give you a little bit of extra motivation. Sometimes it’s blatantly obvious.”
Koepka nurses his grudges as tenderly as a farmer would a crop field, knowing that it may one day nourish him again. At the PGA Championship, he fed off criticism about his weight loss for a magazine photo shoot by Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee. Chamblee’s regular praise goes unnoticed in Camp Koepka, all in service of keeping the grudge vital.
At Pebble Beach, Koepka was asked about his evening routine. He replied that he goes home and watches TV. “We’ll flip on the Golf Channel for a little bit and see what they’re talking about at the end of the day, what Frank and David and Rich are talking about,” he said. Alert readers will have noticed that the Live From show Koepka is referencing features a four-man panel.
While most of his peers scrupulously avoid public (and sometimes petty) spats, Koepka looks as comfortable in that environment as Rafa Nadal does on red clay. He is as combative as he is competitive, playing like Ben Hogan, grappling like Hulk Hogan. It’s a combination that makes him one of the few genuinely compelling characters in the game today.
There is a fine line between being driven and being distracted, and so far Koepka has hewn to the positive side of that divide. His runner-up finish at Pebble Beach means that in his last 16 major championships, he has only twice finished outside the top 20, and one of those was a T-21. His last four results offer an enticing trend as he heads toward the Open Championship at Royal Portrush, in the hometown of his loyal bagman Ricky Elliott: 1-2-1-2.
Koepka’s fellow competitors had best hope that no one — not Chamblee, nor Fox Sports, nor Golf Channel, nor some random guy in the gym — say or do anything to upset the big guy before he gets there.