34 Life's A Beach Brooks Koepka
Four Majors in the trophy cabinet. Over $30 million in the bank. Comfortable in his own skin... Brooks Koepka has been fasttracked to superstardom
Over the last few seasons, no one has been better in the game’s biggest moments than Brooks Koepka. Back-to-back US Open victories (and almost a third) and two straight US PGA Championships helped the American become the No.1 player in the world. But, more than that, he has become the game’s most intimidating presence when the lights are at their brightest.
“He’s one of the best I’ve ever seen at managing chaos in Major Championships,” says his coach Claude Harmon III (in his last 10 Majors, Koepka has won four of them). “He is the best at managing the chaos since Tiger.”
While comparing anyone to Woods is a fool’s errand, when it comes to Koepka there are similarities that ring true, including the athleticism that he
‘HE’S BEEN TRYING TO DO WHAT GOLFERS HAVE BEEN TRYING TO DO SINCE THE BEGINNING OF TIME AND THAT’S PEAK FOUR TIMES A YEAR. AND HE HAS FIGURED IT OUT’
brings to his trade and, more importantly, his mental toughness, something that is so often the separator between the very good and the all-time greats.
“The game slows down for the greats,” Harmon continues. “They figure out how things work. He’s been trying to do what golfers and tennis players have been trying to do since the beginning of time and that’s peak four times a year. And he has figured it out.”
It’s not just those employed by Koepka who have noticed, either. “They are more similar than anybody is talking about,” says sport psychologist Gio Valiante of Koepka and Woods. “It goes very deep. It even shows up in their patterns of speech and use of language, their pauses, their beliefs. In a psychological sense, if not performance, he’s the most like Tiger Woods of any player we’ve ever seen.”
‘HE WAS ALREADY HITTING BALLS AND HE WAS HITTING THESE 5-IRONS WAY UP THERE. I THOUGHT, WOW, THIS GUY IS PRETTY GOOD’
It wasn’t always that way, of course. Unlike Woods, who was a prodigy from early on, Koepka’s road to superstardom began later in life and in far-flung corners of the globe on the European Tour’s Challenge Tour with a circuitous route at best. Or, as Harmon puts it, with a lot of failure, noting the 15 times Koepka has finished second or third around the world as opposed to the 14 times he has been the last man standing, trophy in hand. Still, there was plenty of evidence to suggest that if nothing else the talent was at least there. All it took was finding its way.
The first time his caddie Ricky Elliott met Koepka was at the 2013 US PGA at Oak Hill. Koepka, still playing in Europe at the time, got into the tournament through his
World Ranking, but his regular caddie wasn’t able to make it to upstate New York.
Enter Elliott, whose own fortuitous connection to Koepka is a compelling story in its own right. A former Irish boys’ champion, he grew up playing alongside Graeme Mcdowell at Royal Portrush and had big dreams of his own when he headed to the US to play golf at Toledo University in Ohio. But while Mcdowell’s career soared, Elliott’s sunk into the harsh and depressing hinterlands of golf’s mini tours. When that didn’t work, he tried teaching. But he missed the competitiveness that went with playing. Only he wasn’t good enough.
Now enter Mcdowell, who pitched Elliott to Koepka’s swing coach Claude Harmon III prior to the week at Oak Hill. Elliott was aware of Koepka, but not fully. Koepka and Elliott spoke on the phone and the first time they met was on Oak Hill’s driving range. “I was late,” Elliott recalls.
“He was already hitting balls and he was hitting these 5-irons way up there. I thought, Wow, this guy is pretty good.”
It didn’t take long for Elliott to figure out that he’d stumbled onto something special.
The two hit it off well, but the week wasn’t an easy one. To start, working together for the first time in the cauldron that is Major Championship golf presents its own set of challenges, such as having no idea how far your boss hits each club. For Elliott, it was also his first time looping in any Major.
Koepka made the cut, opening 7172 before another 71 in the third round. Then came Sunday and a pairing with Tiger Woods. “He was jumpy,” Elliott recalls. “It was like being thrown into the deep end of the pool.” It showed. Koepka bombed with a 77, tying for the second-highest score of the day, while Woods shot 70.
Still, Elliott gelled well enough that Koepka kept him on and the two were off and running over the rest of 2013, criss-crossing the globe together with stops in Scotland, Wales, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Italy and then back to Scotland.
Playing on a few sponsor exemptions at the start of the 2013-14 PGA Tour season, Koepka led after the second and third round of his first start, at the Frys.com Open, before tying for third. A few months later in Dubai, he tied for third again. Four months after that, he gave the first glimpse of his big game prowess with a tie for fourth to secure his PGA Tour card at the US Open at Pinehurst.
“That was the first time I realised that he was really a top player,” Elliott says. “He just played so well there. His demeanour on the course in such a big event was great. And that was early on before he’d won anything.” It wouldn’t be long.
Later that year, Koepka rattled off five top-10s in seven starts between the European and PGA Tours, culminating with his first victory, at the Turkish Airlines Open that November. He ended the season eighth in the Race to Dubai, was named the European Tour’s Rookie of the Year and nominated for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Two months later, in February 2015, he shot 64-66 on the weekend of the Waste Management Phoenix Open and won by a stroke for his first victory on the PGA Tour.
The good play kept on coming, with top-10 finishes at The Open and the US PGA at Whistling Straits, the next Ryder Cup venue.
His breakthrough moment came the following year when he bludgeoned the field by four to claim his first career Major title at the 2017 US Open at Erin Hills. Still, many pundits in the game considered Koepka a mostly one-trick pony, a buffed bomber who could only win on courses that rewarded length over all else. Then he became the first player to successfully defend a US Open title since Curtis Strange three decades earlier, using nuance and an impressive short game to win at one of the grand old dames of the game, Shinnecock Hills. Two months later, he captured the US PGA at Bellerive, where he held off charges from Tiger Woods and Adam Scott and set a tournament scoring record, before successfully defending that title with a largely dominant performance at Bethpage Black last May. For good measure, Koepka also finished second at the Masters, second at the US Open at Pebble Beach and fourth at The Open at Portrush.
“He was always an incredible talent,” Elliott says. “But he’s really matured as a person, learned to accept the bad shots more than when we started. Talent-wise, he’s hit the ball the same. But he has worked hard on his body to maintain strength through the golf shot and become consistent in all areas of his game really.”
Ah yes, the body. Or in Koepka’s case, ESPN magazine’s “Body Issue”, an annual ode to the specimens that athletes are and for which he posed nude in last summer. Other golfers, Rory Mcilroy and Rickie Fowler among them, meanwhile have turned down similar requests in the past.
Koepka? He not only welcomed the opportunity, but proved to have thick skin when the time came to show it off.
Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee called the decision a reckless act of self-sabotage, with Koepka having admitted that he shed more than 30lb for the racy photo shoot. But to Koepka, it was merely fun, haters be damned.
“It’s one of those things where all these people that talk crap on social media, they don’t have the balls to do it, and they wouldn’t look that good,” he said.
“You know, to get chosen for that, you have to be one of the best in your sport. So obviously, I’m doing something right on the golf course, and it’s fun. Getting naked’s a bit weird; the first time you actually pull that