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Brooks Koepka: Back With a Vengeance

The five-time major winner overwhelmed the PGA Championship with his presence and power, returning to the top of the game

By Alan Shipnuck
May 22, 2023

PITTSFORD, N.Y.—There have been a lot of great golfers through the years but only a very select few have had  presence. Hogan had it. Arnie. Jack. Seve. Raymundo. Faldo. Tiger, obviously. Golf skill is a big part of it, but the presence is metaphysical. It is a distillation of will, want, grind, grit, confidence, belief…badassery. The post-Woods era has been defined by parity, but only one golfer has had presence. U.S. Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker called it way back in 2017, when Brooks Koepka won the U.S. Open, the beginning of a historic run during which he won four major championships in an eight-event stretch, all by age 29. “Brooks looks like he wants to fight you,” said Stricker. “He looks like he wants to punch you in the mouth. That’s what I like about him—he’s got an edge. For sure it’s intimidating to play against. You get a guy who is built like a linebacker and pounds the crap out of the ball, and then looks over like he wants to brawl, yeah, that has an effect.”

    Injury and related swing issues temporarily derailed Koepka, but now he’s back with a vengeance. During the final round of the 105th PGA Championship, Koepka seemed about 10 feet tall and in need of a wheelbarrow to cart around his cojones. Having been outdueled by Jon Rahm a month ago on Masters Sunday, Koepka was fighting for his reputation as well as the Wanamaker Trophy and he came out playing with a palpable intensity. Flushed irons shots on 2, 3 and 4 led to birdies that pushed his lead from one to three strokes.The fairways at Oak Hill were barely wide enough to contain Koepka’s puissance. “In the north of England we say, He has a lot of twat in him,” says Koepka’s short-game coach, Pete Cowen, “which means, I’m the man. Bring it on. Brooks is afraid of nothing.”

A game Viktor Hovland kept coming and Koepka’s lead was a lone stroke when the two played the 12th hole, where he made a textbook birdie that doubled the lead. But the key sequence came on the next hole, an unreachable (on this day) par-5. With Hovland already in with a birdie, Koepka faced a terrifying 10-footer for par straight down a vertiginous hill. Making a putt like that, under such conditions, has little to do with technical proficiency. It is an X-ray of the soul. Koepka gutted the putt and then swaggered off the green. “He’s a tough character,” says Cowen. “He’s a gun for hire. Bang, you’re dead.” 

Koepka plays a cut almost exclusively with his driver, but on the drivable par-4 14th he roped a high draw for extra yardage, setting up a two-putt for a birdie, matching Hovland’s. The young Norwegian was 3 under par for the day on a relentless course but could never quite catch Koepka. “It’s not easy going toe to toe with a guy like that,” Hovland said afterward. “He is not going to give you anything.” On the long par-4 16th, after Hovland had a misadventure in a fairway bunker (below), Koepka nearly knocked over the flagstick from 157 yards out, making another birdie to stretch the lead to four strokes. Bang, you’re dead.

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Thus begins what his swing coach Claude Harmon calls “Koepka 2.0.” At 33, Brooks is married, expecting a child and has no earthly concerns after cashing a nine-figure signing bonus to join LIV Golf last summer. But it wasn’t until a win last October, at LIV Jeddah, that Koepka began to feel his game was returning after a series of knee, hip and wrist injuries. (It was his first victory anywhere since the 2021 Waste Management Open.) Then he had a four-month offseason to get stronger, longer and more supple. This year’s Masters was Koepka’s first big test and he struggled after taking a two-shot lead into the final round, leaving him despondent. “Seeing how much he was hurting, I knew he’d win the PGA Championship,” says Harmon. “People love to say Brooks doesn’t care anymore because he took the LIV money. If that’s the case, why does he have such a big team around him to help him get better?” That squad includes a swing coach, a short-game coach, a putting coach, two trainers, a chef and sundry others. But on Sunday at Oak Hill, he was alone in the arena. There is no lonelier feeling than having the 54-hole lead at a major championship; Koepka is now 4-for-5 converting them into victories. “He didn’t get it done on Sunday at Augusta, but he knows he’s a closer and everybody else knows he’s a closer too,” says Harmon. “So when he didn’t get it done at the Masters, everybody went, Oh, shit, what now? Listen, he’s a generational talent. He’s not like everyone else. Brooks is fucking Aaron Rodgers, right? He’s one of those guys. He’s a franchise quarterback in the NFL. He’s a starting pitcher who just threw another no-hitter, won another World Series and another Cy Young Award. He’s Kevin Durant.”

Koepka’s win has larger meaning in golf’s new world order, giving a massive dose of credibility to LIV Golf as it continues to try to carve out an identity. Koepka’s old antagonist Bryson DeChambeau stuck around on Sunday to dap up Koepka after the win, and DeChambeau had a fraternal pride in LIV being the home to two reigning major champions, along with Open Championship winner Cam Smith. “It validates everything that we’ve said from the beginning, that we’re competing at the highest level [on LIV],” said DeChambeau, who tied for fourth. “I hope everybody can see the light now.”

Koepka declined to stir things up, saying, “Yeah, it’s a huge thing for LIV, but at the same time I’m out here competing as an individual at the PGA Championship. I’m just happy to take this home for the third time.” He is now a virtual certainty for the U.S. 

Ryder Cup team, positioning Koepka as a potential agent of change. In the war between the tours, he has not participated in any of the mud-slinging or litigation. It is surely not in the PGA Tour’s interests to have no access to golf’s most ruthless big-game hunter, and the more Koepka wins, the more pressure the Tour will feel to find a way to bring Brooks (and his comrades) back into the fold. 

But these are concerns for another day. Sunday at Oak Hill was all about Koepka, who, with his five majors, is now tied with three all-time geniuses: Seve, Lord Byron and Peter Thomson. Up next, at six, are more legends in Trevino, Faldo and Mickelson. Of course, a couple of years ago Koepka said that his goal was 15, Tiger Woods’s total. “In my mind, I’m going to catch him on majors,” he said. “I believe that. I don’t see any reason that can stop me.”

Then life got in the way. After all the injuries, setbacks, self-doubt and controversies, Koepka is once again the player he was always supposed to be. “It feels damned good,” he said in triumph. “Yeah, this one is definitely special. I think this one is probably the most meaningful of them all with everything that’s gone on, all the crazy stuff over the last few years.”

Meet the new boss. Same as the old boss.

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5 thoughts on “Brooks Koepka: Back With a Vengeance”

  1. Rare that you see a win that settles everything. Sorry Rory, Jordan and DJ. Brooks is definitively the best golfer post-Tiger.

  2. Brooks a badass ?
    How many street fights has he been in? It’s tiresome.
    He’s a golfer, for Christ sake

  3. Sorry Alan, but despite your best hopes this Brooks win does not mean that the PGA will be aching to bring his “comrades” back into the fold. It shows that LIV was absolutely successful in bringing a handful of incredible golfers to their league. It’s too bad that they continue to put up mediocre exhibition tournaments that don’t allow competition with the best players playing against each other on the PGA. Would love to see Brooks come back bc he is without a doubt top tier but let’s not pretend that his success is linked to others on LIv. They are competing in a tiered level (not the “highest” Bryson) with a handful of top dogs and the rest a mixed bag of talent.

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