The quiet winner overtaking US Golf’s golden generation
With victory at the 100th PGA Championship on Sunday, Brooks Koepka claimed his third major victory in what has already been an eventful career, and year. Paired with back-to-back victories at the US Open, generally conspired the hardest event on tour, he has become one of the leading figures in world golf.
Gregor Kerr looks at the journey of the major specialist.
When the favourite is determined for any of the four major championships, you can except to see the usual suspects amongst the pickings. Jordan Spieth, a double major champion by 22, or perhaps the number one golfer in the world, Dustin Johnson, are amongst the most fancied.
Many hope that Rickie Fowler will grab his first major, Rory McIlroy will complete the career grand slam and Justin Thomas will build on his PGA Championship victory.
Three of the last six though majors though, in a Woods-level scale of dominance, have gone to a low-key – though perhaps not anymore – name. Brooks Koepka, who began with perhaps more humble beginnings than others at the top of the tour, was not the pick of many to become a dominant name in the sport. Few, if none, have had a greater 2018 than him.
His record on most tour events isn’t eye-raising, one win at the Phoenix Open three years ago still standing as his solitary PGA Tour triumph. However, when pressure builds to bursting point, conditions become arduous and the frontrunners begin to fall, the Floridian, large in stature and in courage, usually comes out on top these days.
His path to the professional game began similar to most of his countrymen, competing at college level, in this case for Florida State University in Tallahassee. Nine other players came from the university to compete on the PGA Tour, notably Jonas Blixt, Paul Azinger and perhaps most fittingly Jeff Sluman. Sluman won the 1988 PGA Championship nearly 30 years to the day before Koepka got his hands on the very same trophy.
As an amateur Brooks featured at the 2012 US Open, missing the cut by three strokes at Erin Hills, which would eventually be the scene of his first major victory a few years down the line. Three victories in college were coupled with as many all-American titles.
While many young American golfers would remain in the states to learn their trade, he took the less travelled path and crossed the pond over to Europe in the summer of 2012, to compete on the challenge tour.
Within months of turning professional, he won his first title in September, shooting an aggregate score of 200 to seal the Challenge de Catalunya. By the following year, Koepka hit his most scintillating form of his young career, in the space of three months he claimed the Montecchia Open, Challenge de Espana and the Hydro challenge in Scotland.
The latter of the three was the most pivotal, in prevailing conditions he proved a stoic resilience and an ability to cope with any conditions thrown in his direction. By this point it was clear the potential of his game was too high for the Challenge Tour, and the step up to the European Tour came shortly in the Scottish Open.
Speaking to the European Tour website about his time on the Challenge Tour, he said: “Looking back that was a very important time in my career, and the 11 months I spent on the Challenge Tour gave me a good grounding in the professional game.”
The first European tour victory was inevitable, a final day 65 clinching a narrow in in the 2014 Turkish Airlines open. When Koepka got his first sniff at a major the following year, is when he took his game to the next level.
A fourth-place finish at the US Open, soon to become his forte, earned him a PGA Tour card and a return back across the pond. A win at the Phoenix Open in February 2015 was his first, and so far only victory on the PGA tour, but it spring boarded him to greater achievements two years later.
Despite becoming a familiar face at the 2016 Ryder Cup, few would have predicted Koepka’s dominance on a challenging week at Erin Hills in the 2017 US Open. In a competition filled with complaints over the difficulty of the course, Koepka kept his head down and tamed the conditions.
Fast greens, strong winds and thick rough may seem unplayable for many a golfer, but experiences in Europe and in Scotland were the perfect preparation for these moments. A score of -16 set the tournament record and gave Brooks the confidence that he can win at such a level.
His calm demeanour was a surprise for somebody approaching their first major, but a lack of emotion is actually a tactic to prevent any anger bubbling over, he described himself as being a “hot head” during his college years. Perhaps that is why he receives little coverage, a lack of animation.
After a wrist injury halted any Masters hopes earlier this year, it was a big ask to retain the US Open this year at Shinnecock Hills two months later. In a course more difficult than the last, not one single player shot under, or even par, over the four days. Koepka, -3 going into Sunday, used his experience to shoot a 68, and become only the third player since the second World War to retain the tournament.
You would have expected his stock to rise, but it only happened slightly. The resurgent Tiger Woods show overshadowed Koepka’s final round dual with Adam Scott, and that may be the motivation that fuels him. He has never been one of the loved stars of the tour, not the face on posters and doesn’t attract a baying crowd. If none of those change after this landmark major win, it’s hard to envisage it ever happening.
His personality, or lack of, is unique, he claims to watch little golf, claiming that he isn’t a “nerd”. Before most rounds he spends his time in the gym, he gives little interviews or insight into his life, but with the results being produced, who is to blame him for following the blueprint that works.
Even if the narrative, or coverage, of Koepka fails to change, we’ll still have to become used to the sight of seeing him triumph on the big stage. He can only be ignored for so long.