Brooks Koepka is going to hate this column.
He’s going to want to print it out, tape it to a 20-pound medicine ball, and throw it against the wall for an hour until it’s reduced to a fleshy pulp. But if you think that’s because I’m about to rip him, or question his toughness, or that I’m about to grumble that his recent run of dominance is bad for golf, you’re dead wrong.
I come to praise him, not complain about him. I’m ready to officially crown him the Troll King of American sports, and — to quote from the gospel of “Office Space” — celebrate his entire catalogue.
Which he will hate — secretly, because he’ll deny he even read it — for one simple reason: His superpowers are clearly fueled by his ability to absorb, catalogue, and be inspired by, slights. Both real or imagined.
Koepka wants our love. Don’t for a second believe the storyline that he doesn’t care what people think about him. Koepka cares deeply, and he longs to be acknowledged as the best player in the sport.
He doesn’t need our love, though. He needs our bile. Our indifference. That’s what turns him into the Hulk of the golfing universe.
If Koepka wants to be the first person in 115 years to win back-to-back-to-back U.S. Opens, the best thing I could do to help make it happen would be to spend the next 800 words questioning his manhood, questioning his fitness, even questioning his favorite brand of beer. (Now that I think about it, Brooks sipping a Michelob Ultra in the winning news conference while glaring at the media would be very on brand.) No grievance feels so small that he can resist elevating it.
On Tuesday, he mentioned to the media he was perturbed he’d just seen a promo for the U.S. Open of Fox Sports that didn’t feature him.
“There’s been a couple of times where it’s just mind-boggling,” Koepka said. “It’s like, really? Like, how do you forget that? Just kind of shocked. They’ve had over a year to kind of put it out. So I don’t know. Somebody probably got fired over it or should.”
Never mind that Fox Sports made four promos, and he was heavily featured in three of them. One of them, in fact, was entirely about Brooks. It featured no other golfers! But he happened to see the one that didn’t feature him, and it was a slight he could not forgive.
Want to hear the perfect Koepka story? When ESPN The Magazine put together a list of the 20 most dominant athletes of 2018, and didn’t include Koepka on it despite the fact that he won two majors (the list leaned heavily on math, not emotion), he was so annoyed — particularly that we put a horse on there instead of him (Justify did, after all, win the Triple Crown) — he saved it as the lock screen on his phone, wanting to wake up every day and look at it so he could be pissed off again.
You might believe, as many do, that Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee insulted Koepka earlier this year by saying that he “needed to see more” before anointing Koepka a generationally great player and that he might not have the mental toughness to win the Masters. “That really pissed me off,” Koepka said after winning the PGA Championship.
But looking back, it has become obvious Chamblee did Koepka a favor. When he’s pissed off, Koepka becomes a destroyer of worlds. Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods should pray someone in Koepka’s camp doesn’t secretly put Chamblee or ESPN on retainer, paying us to lob criticisms at Brooks before every major, because Koepka might win the next six in a row and get to double digits by the end of 2020.
At Bethpage, the only time he looked mortal was Sunday, after people had spent three straight days gushing over him. Then, in the midst of a final-round tailspin, what snapped him out of it and helped him hang on for the win wasn’t crowd support — it was the Long Island fans turning on him, jeering at him and accusing him of choking, suddenly openly rooting for Dustin Johnson. The walk from the 14th green down the hill to the 15th tee felt like you were inside an SEC football stadium, and Koepka admitted he was a little shook by what was unfolding. Koepka’s playing partner, Harold Varner III, mentioned afterward how disappointed he was to see the crowd behave that way. Koepka, remarkably, took the opposite view.
“I think I kind of deserved it,” Koepka said. “I think it actually helped. It was at a perfect time because I was just thinking, ‘OK, all right. I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go.'”
It is as admirable as it is abnormal.
“I wish I could use negativity the way he’s able to use it,” said Graeme McDowell, who was one of Koepka’s mentors when he first came on tour. “He just drives himself to another level. Tiger was very different from that. He didn’t seem to need negativity. Tiger just went to a different place mentally than the rest of us can go to. But Brooks can get himself there with little chips, the little comments, and take himself to places we’ve only seen from guys like Tiger. It’s impressive.”
Yet even for the sake of history, I can’t bring myself to invent reasons to annoy him. (Although I will say he looks like a handsome 1980s movie villain.) Koepka, particularly of late, has been a refreshing cleanse for my golfing soul. Sure, he might occasionally grumble about a lack of respect, but you’ll never hear him whine about how hard a golf course is, or that a certain setup doesn’t suit his game. He doesn’t complain about the grind, or the pressure, of his chosen profession. He just shows up, plays fast and kicks ass.
“I get to play golf for a living,” Koepka said at Bethpage. “That’s not that stressful.”
He might not be as eloquent as Jordan Spieth or as thoughtful as Rory McIlroy; he doesn’t have Tiger Woods’ artistry, or Phil Mickelson’s penchant for comedy. But what Koepka has done the past two years is gradually remind us that so much of professional golf has become a cozy, corporate cash grab. It’s hard to care that much, week in and week out, when everyone is getting rich and everyone appears to be great friends.
It’s classy and admirable that Rickie Fowler has made a habit of hanging around at the end of tournaments to congratulate the winner, and that Spieth and Justin Thomas vacation together and begged to play together in the Ryder Cup as fulfillment of a childhood dream. It’s also delightful that Koepka isn’t out here to make friends, and that he’s only famous for winning big tournaments, not hawking mortgages or insurance. Fowler might be more recognizable than Koepka, but Koepka has already won as many majors as Fowler has won PGA Tour tournaments (four).
That may seem like a shot at Fowler, but it’s actually a testament to Koepka, who embodies the idea that substance is all that matters, and that everything surrounding the majors is just noise. There is an everyman appeal to it. Golf nerds — and I’m proudly one of them — might argue over the value of the FedExCup Rankings or who deserves to be ranked No. 1, but if it doesn’t involve Tiger Woods or a major championship, the average sports fan can barely muster an interest. Koepka seems to share that emotion and, before long, those people are going to view him as their patron saint.
“I asked a group of people the other day, ‘How many regular-season victories does Jack Nicklaus have?'” said Bob Koepka, Brooks’ father. “Everyone looked at me like they were kind of stumped. It’s all about the majors. If a guy has 18 PGA Tour victories and no majors, he’s kind of a forgotten person. That’s what Brooks has always said: ‘I want to gear up for the majors.'”
It’s a refreshing take, in part because it echoes not just Nicklaus, but the sentiments of alphas from other sports. Ask yourself: Do you care, even a little, how many regular-season games Michael Jordan or Tom Brady won? Consider Koepka’s answer this past week, when reporters asked him what he’d consider an acceptable finish at the Canadian Open.
“I could care less what happens,” Koepka said. “The result doesn’t really matter.”
Sorry, Canada. Tough break, eh?
Koepka doesn’t have an equipment deal, and he isn’t part of a single national ad campaign. It’s an approach so different from that of his contemporaries, and you can sometimes see them trying to wrap their heads around it. When McIlroy was asked by reporters at Bethpage if it was possible for Koepka to sustain this kind of dominant run, it was like watching someone wrestle in real time with their own regrets.
“I don’t really know Brooks that well. I don’t know his routines,” said McIlroy, who won two majors of his own in 2014. “The big thing for me was finding the time to, or making sure that you have the time to, keep yourself at a level where you need to be at. You know, saying no to things. Just making sure that golf and your performance is still the No. 1 priority. When you start to win majors and you start to get all these opportunities, you know, it depends. You have to make the most of those, as well, because at the end of the day, we’re here to make a living and have a livelihood and enjoy ourselves, but at the same time, you have to make sure that your performance stays where it needs to stay.”
There is some sentiment around the PGA Tour that Pebble Beach might humble Koepka, that he won’t be able to wield his driver like it’s Thor’s hammer because the fairways will be tight and the greens are tiny. And he’ll face an even harder test at Royal Portrush in Northern Ireland, where The Open will be held in July.
“When you get to Pebble Beach or Royal Portrush, the golf course is a very different animal,” Adam Scott said. “It’s going to ask different things. There is a lot more slope and undulation involved. It’s pretty one-dimensional [at Bethpage]. But look, he’s pushing the boundaries at the moment, and no one can keep up.”
By the end of this week, I suspect that players will be scratching their heads once again, wondering how a pissed-off Koepka picked apart yet another classic American golf course.
It’s not clear yet what’s going to ignite his anger, but I think I have a potential candidate. Every week, you see, Bob Koepka plays in a one-and-done golf pool with a big group of friends at his country club in Florida. The concept is simple: Each tournament, you choose the golfer you think is going to win, but once you use him, you can’t use him again for the rest of the season. There is strategy involved, since some golfers don’t play well on certain courses. For the PGA Championship at Bethpage, Bob Koepka picked his son Brooks.
“He’s such an aggressive putter that he always putts better on bentgrass,” Bob said. “Pebble has those poa greens that can get so bumpy late in the day. It’s just hard to putt aggressively on them. Obviously I wish I could keep using him every major.”
You hear that, Brooks? Your dad doesn’t think you’re a great putter on poa greens! Better go win the U.S. Open for the third straight year just to stick it to him. Everyone is a hater, it seems, and a witness, on a ride like this.
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