Some day this winter, Brooks Koepka will indulge a now customary ritual. He’ll go alone to the beach near his home in Jupiter, Fla., sit by the ocean and write down his goals for the year. Some will be shared with his team; others will remain private. That’s been his habit since he turned professional, but it’s difficult to imagine that the ambitions Koepka listed a year ago could have been as lofty as his actual accomplishments in 2018.
He became the first man in almost 30 years to successfully defend the U.S. Open. At the PGA Championship, he joined Tiger Woods, Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Padraig Harrington as the only players in the last two decades to win two majors in a season. He was voted Player of the Year, an honor he promptly celebrated by winning the CJ Cup and ascending to No. 1 in the world.
It’s an honor roll that renders his $7 million earnings almost incidental.
“Anyone else, they’re on the cover of a Wheaties box,” said Claude Harmon III, Koepka’s longtime coach.
There won’t be a Wheaties box, of course.
That metaphorical quest for the Wheaties box took another detour this week when Koepka was snubbed by ESPN on its “Dominant 20” list athletes for 2018.
— Brooks Koepka (@BKoepka) December 11, 2018
Cereal celebrities are obliged to perform before the cameras as much as on the field of play, and Koepka has repeatedly declined the glitzy media tours that usually await a major champion. A modern PGA Tour golfer who doesn’t moonlight as a pitchman, who simply plays and goes home, is condemned to life below the radar. Even his CJ Cup win and crowning as World No. 1 was unseen by fans at home, happening overnight in South Korea.
The 28-year-old Floridian’s laid-back demeanor obscures just how meteoric his rise to the top of world golf has been. He needed only 105 Tour starts to get there. Seventeen of them came in his outstanding 2018 campaign, which ended in ecstasy but began with something much closer to despair.
Wrist injury slowed early progress in 2018
In November 2017 Koepka had blitzed the field by nine strokes to win the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan for a second consecutive year, but confessed to Harmon afterward that his left wrist was hurting.
He soldiered on.
At the 18-man Hero World Challenge he finished last, 21 strokes behind Rickie Fowler. At the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the injury flared again as he warmed up for the pro-am. He didn’t break 74 that week. Another DFL, 37 stokes adrift of his buddy Dustin Johnson.
One week into 2018, Koepka shut it down. He would not touch a club for 91 days.
“It was devastating to him, it was frustrating to all of us,” Harmon said of the feeling in Camp Koepka. “Wrist, neck and back injuries for golfers are like football players blowing out their ACL. You have no idea what’s going to happen. Is he going to be the same player? There were a lot of unknowns.”
Koepka began hitting balls again on the Monday after the Masters. He admitted that it hurt having to watch the tournament from home.
“Sitting on the couch made me really appreciate how much I actually love this game and love competition,” Koepka said. “I don’t want to say I was depressed, but I was definitely down.”
He returned in late April, but just weeks later at the Players Championship he tweaked his wrist again after trying to stop a swing when a cart drove in front of him on the range. An MRI signaled he was good to play. A Sunday 63 signaled his game was healing too.
“Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you and told you there was no way, no chance. To do it is really incredible.” – Brooks Koepka after winning the 2018 PGA Championship
He rounded into form with a second-place finish at the Fort Worth Invitational (another two 63s) then headed to Shinnecock Hills in New York, where he became the first defending champion to repeat at the U.S. Open since Curtis Strange in 1989. Two months later – another 63! – he held off a resurgent Woods by two strokes to win the PGA Championship at Bellerive in St. Louis, his third major in six starts.
“Looking where I was, sitting on my couch watching the Masters, and to think I would do this, I would have laughed at you and told you there was
no way, no chance,” he said that night. “To do it is really incredible.”
Koepka’s season was noteworthy not just for the wins, but for the manner of the wins. He has long been admired for his athleticism and raw power, but Koepka’s greatest weapon was a preternatural calm on the most nerve-jangling Sundays in the game.
“He has an innate ability to not put pressure on himself. I’ve never seen him panic,” Harmon said. “He reminds me of Nick Faldo mentally. He’s tough. You know he’s not going to fold.”
Calm and cool off the course
That even-keeled approach extends to life off the golf course too.
“Compared to a lot of the young guys, he just doesn’t beat himself up. He never sulks,” Harmon said. “There are players on Tour that if you’re supposed to go out to dinner with them and they shoot 75, you’re not going out to dinner. Brooks doesn’t have that attitude.”
It was in 2013 that Harmon began working with Koepka, who was learning his craft on Europe’s minor-league Challenge Tour. He quickly noticed two striking attributes.
“He had a lot of speed, like Tiger back in the day, or Rory. He had the one thing that as an instructor I know you can’t teach,” Harmon said. “You either have that or you don’t.”
Perhaps more surprising was Koepka’s self-belief.
“When I first started working with him he said he thought he could win multiple majors,” his coach remembered, still laughing at the audacity. “I’m like, ‘Dude, you’re on the Challenge Tour!’ He always believed.”
The wins mean more to Koepka than his public disposition might suggest. After winning his first major last year at Erin Hills, he flew to Las Vegas. On a private jet high over the Rockies, the newly crowned U.S. Open champion held the trophy and wept.
Koepka was no less awestruck when Harmon and his agent, Blake Smith, lined up his major hardware to take photos at his home a few days after the PGA Championship. “Holy (expletive)” the champ said when he walked into the room. “I can’t believe I have all these trophies in my house.”
“Everyone thought Erin Hills was a mistake. It was an asterisk,” Harmon said with an edge of disdain in his voice. “Then he goes and wins Shinnecock. Then he wins the PGA. Then he’s Player of the Year. And World No. 1.”
That PGA triumph held special significance for Koepka, and not because he became the first player of his generation to face down Woods in the final round of a major. Clipping another opponent at Bellerive really thrilled the champion. Koepka’s idol is Adam Scott, with whom he played in the final round and edged into third place by three strokes.
They had first played together four years earlier in a practice round at Hoylake before the British Open. Harmon had secretly set up the game. When the Aussie walked onto the tee, a wide-eyed Koepka turned to his coach.
Koepka has become his own hero
“We’re playing with Adam Scott?” he exclaimed. “Are you kidding me?”
Today, Koepka has three times as many major wins as his hero.
The lazy rap against Koepka is that he doesn’t win often enough on Tour. The 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open – the first of his five Tour wins – is his only non-major victory in the U.S. It’s an anomaly that puts him in rarefied statistical company with Andy North as players who have more wins in majors than in regular tournaments. It’s not a ledger imbalance that troubles his team.
“His game is really suited to winning majors. Who else can say that?” Harmon said. “Rory can say that. Jordan can say that. Tiger can say that. Phil could in his prime. Other than those four, who else could say that their game is built around winning majors?”
Koepka always believed that, even back when he was a scrawny, unpolished kid playing in Kazakhstan and the other similarly unglamorous precincts of the Challenge Tour. Back then he told Harmon that he believed he could get to five or six major wins. That, he felt sure, was a legit target. He’s made a believer out of many since then, his coach included.
“In the next 10 years he’s going to give himself good opportunities to win major championships,” Harmon said. “He’s going to be one of those guys who is going to have chances.”
Five or six majors. A lofty goal, one that might offer a clue as to what Koepka could be writing when he’s sitting alone on the beach in Jupiter. Gwk
(Note: A version of this story appeared in the November 2018 issue of Golfweek.)