Big, Bad Brooks Is Back
After two flawless rounds at the Masters, the four-time major champion is looking to add to his legacy
By Alan Shipnuck
April 7, 2023
AUGUSTA, Ga.—Big, bad Brooks Koepka is back. But how? And why now? According to Koepka, the answer is quite simple. “I’m finally healthy,” he said this week. By Friday he had vaulted into the lead in the rain-delayed second round of the Masters. After his historic run from 2017 to ’19, during which he won two U.S. Opens and two PGA Championships and conquered the likes of Shinnecock Hills and Bethpage Black, Koepka was slowed over the next 2½ years by injury. He dinged up his neck, wrist, hip and, most seriously, right knee, which required surgery in March 2021 to repair ligament damage and a shattered kneecap. But as with most Koepka proclamations, there is more lurking beneath the surface.
The renaissance began in the summer of 2022, when Koepka reunited with Claude Harmon III, the swing guru who had been by his side as he became a dominant force. Koepka had fired him in November ’20, three days after Dustin Johnson won the Masters. The timing was more than coincidence, reflecting the complicated dynamic between Koepka and DJ, longtime friends and occasional frenemies. Across 2015 and ’16, an emergent Koepka produced three top 10s in the majors, but something was still missing. Enter Johnson, who broke through at the 2016 U.S. Open. That same year, Koepka mentioned to his pal that he was going to rent a house while renovating his home in Jupiter, Fla. “DJ says to Brooks, ‘Bro, stay with me, I’ve got plenty of space. I’ll teach you how to drive a boat,’” says Johnson’s trainer, Joey Diovisalvi. Koepka crashed with Johnson for six months and got a close-up look at his ascent to the top of the World Ranking. After a long courtship, Koepka finally persuaded Diovisalvi to take him on as a client in the spring of 2017. “He came in as such a cocky little bastard,” says Diovisalvi. “At the time Brooks was 18th in the world and he says to me, ‘I only have 17 spots to go to relieve DJ of his position.’”
But Koepka backed up the trash talk. Within a year he had summited the World Ranking, and when he dusted Johnson in mano-y-manos at both the 2018 U.S. Open and the ’19 PGA Championship, the pupil had become the master. Harmon served both players until getting canned by Koepka, who was frustrated by a fruitless 2020 season. But the swing coach retains a grudging respect for how Koepka handled his business. “Most guys out here are afraid of conflict,” says Harmon. “When they want to fire someone they chicken out and have their agent do it. Brooks did it man-to-man.”
A year later, as his slump deepened, Koepka asked Harmon to get back together but the swing coach wasn’t ready; he considered Koepka a brother as much as a pupil and the wound was still too raw. By the summer of 2022, Koepka was desperate. Injuries and poor play had destroyed his confidence and compromised his swing. He was getting pounded in the press and by fans on social media for having decamped to LIV. Harmon took him back to the future, focusing on the basics: ball position, alignment, a wide backswing. “Same stuff we worked on for eight years,” says Harmon.
Koepka began piecing his game back together and at the LIV event in Saudi Arabia, in October, he won for the first time anywhere in the world in more than three years. The golf establishment is eager to dismiss LIV results, but the victory was deeply meaningful for Koepka, mostly because it validated so much toil. “He’s working harder now than when he was number one,” says Harmon. “The game was easier for him back then.”
Koepka won another LIV event last week to roar into Augusta feeling confident as well as healthy. He has hardly missed a shot across the first two rounds of this Masters. On Friday he eagled the 8th hole after a gorgeous 3-iron up the hill, but the 13th hole was the clearest evidence of how in control Koepka is of his instrument. A dedicated fader of the golf ball, he ripped a draw that hugged the left side of the fairway, shortening the newly lengthened par-5. Then he drew another long iron around the trees, nearly knocking over the flagstick and leading to a tap-in birdie. He also reached the 15th with two macho swings, playing the four par-5s in 5 under. Koepka’s bogey-free 67 gave him a 36-hole total of 12-under 132, two strokes off the record set by Jordan Spieth in 2015. Jon Rahm is three back with nine holes to play in a second round suspended by weather, while thrilling amateur Sam Bennett is alone in third place at 8 under. Everyone else is at least six strokes behind.
A weekend shootout with Rahm, the 2021 U.S. Open champ, would be an enticing matchup of two brooding ball bashers, but Koepka, 32, is also chasing the ghosts of golf’s all-time greats: five major championship victories would tie him with geniuses like Seve Ballesteros and Lord Byron Nelson. It would also move Koepka out of a tie with Rory McIlroy, who used to seem like an obvious choice as the best player of the post-Tiger era. But after his latest woebegone performance, it’s getting harder and harder to believe McIlroy will ever figure out Augusta National. Koepka knows there remains much work to be done at this tournament, but if he nabs this green jacket he, like McIlroy and Spieth, will be three-quarters of the way to golf’s holy grail. “The whole goal is to win the [career] Grand Slam, right?” Koepka said following his second round. “I feel like all the greats have won here and they have all won British Opens as well. Look, I guess it’s one more box for me to tick to truly feel like I’ve done what I should have accomplished in this game.”
Koepka is older, wiser and a little humbled since his previous peak, but two flawless rounds have suddenly restored some of his mystique. “Brooks had something these other guys didn’t have,” says Harmon. He offered a final thought that should be chilling for every other player on the leaderboard: “It’s just like 2019 all over again.”
In 1994, Alan wrote his first cover story for Sports Illustrated as a 21 year-old intern, and in the ensuing quarter-century he typed two dozen more. He is the author of eight books, including best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees; The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger); and Phil. Shipnuck has won 13 first-place awards in the annual Golf Writers Association of America writing contest, breaking the record of Dan Jenkins, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame. Alan lives in Carmel, Cal.