“Brooks wants to put a massive gap between him and the rest of the field, like Tiger Woods did all those years ago. The desire is still there. You think after all the majors that the desire might disappear, but not with people like that, for him it gets stronger.” – Pete Cowen to Sport360, October 2018
After he failed to qualify for the PGA Tour eight years ago, Brooks Koepka travelled from Florida to Europe to embark on a fresh start.
At the time, it was rare for a young American to play abroad on the Challenge Tour. It was, however, a unique introduction to the professional circuit – and one that he wouldn’t change.
Different challenges presented themselves in each city. His confidence and game intelligence slowly progressed as a result of improved playing opportunities.
Now all these years on, the four-time major winner and number one in the world is a far cry from the man who missed the cut at the Kazakhstan Open in 2012 ranked 871st in the world.
What have been the blocks to build Brooks into golf’s undisputed best player?
RISE FROM CHALLENGE TOUR
After graduating from the Challenge Tour by securing his third win of the 2013 season in Scotland, Koepka took up European Tour membership.
He clinched his first European Tour title in 2014 with success at the Turkish Airlines Open, and followed that up with third at the Dubai Desert Classic and European Open. It was a season which culminated in him being named Sir Henry Cotton Rookie of the Year.
While other young American stars honed their skills on the national circuit, Koepka was toiling in Hyvinkaa (Finland), Nairobi (Kenya) and Almaty (Kazakhstan) in a bid to develop his burgeoning career. A road less travelled, but one that would make him a better golfer for it.
He probably lost track of the stamps in his passport, the countries he visited and the air miles clocked up. But the hard work would pay off in 2015, when sealing a maiden PGA Tour win at the Waste Management Open.
Tipped as a rising star, his victory in Phoenix finally made people step up and take notice of his class.
In a sport flooded with thousands of up-and-coming talents, one can fall by the wayside very quickly. For Brooks, he has kept rising since that towering display in Phoenix and has not looked back since.
The week before Koepka clinched the first of his four majors in June 2017, his short game coach Pete Cowen followed him for all four rounds of the St. Jude Classic in Memphis.
Koepka cut a frustrating figure all weekend, walking around the course with his shoulders down and looking like a beaten man before the tournament was even over. He signed off with a miserable final round three-over par to finish in a tie for 37th, nine shots behind the overall winner.
Two days later at Erin Hills, Cowen sat down with the American and said his attitude needed to change if he was to ever go on and fulfill his potential in the sport.
“I gave him a huge b******ing,” said Cowen, who has been working with the Florida native since 2013. “I followed him around that week and his body language was terrible. He was saying ‘I’ll never win’. It was all a bit ‘poor me’.
“I said to him ‘you need a champions’ attitude. It’s a challenge to you, change your attitude.”
That Sunday, Koepka equalled the US Open’s lowest winning score of 16-under par to claim his maiden major, winning with a combination of power and accuracy. This meant it matched the lowest score in history which was set by Rory McIlroy back in 2011.
One year on from his success in Wisconsin, he navigated his way through the brutal conditions of Shinnecock Hills and closed with a two-under 68 to become the first repeat champion in 29 years. A phenomenal achievement after returning from a career-threatening wrist injury.
Two months later, he landed his third major at the PGA Championship, finishing two-shots clear of Tiger Woods. It was the win in Bellerive which helped cement his status as one of the premier players of the current generation.
He officially became world number one in 2018 following his CJ Cup victory in South Korea. And, his success has continued since, sitting clear in the rankings to this day ahead of McIlroy and Jon Rahm.
In the shadow of the New York skyline, Koepka stood as a tower of authority when he successfully defended his PGA Championship in May 2019, with a two-shot victory over Dustin Johnson. It was his fourth major in eight starts.
Many individual accolades followed, his game and confidence grew, as he became the first man in history to successfully defend both PGA Championship and US Open titles.
This success has been record-breaking and it is only set to continue as Koepka maintains his position atop the golfing world.
EVOLUTION OF HIS GAME
Koepka’s coach, Claude Harmon, has been anything but surprised to see his rise.
The pair have been working together since the Challenge Tour in 2013, with Harmon playing an integral role in Koepka’s ball-striking and ability to hit far, straight and accurate.
What sets his swing apart from other players is his ability to keep clubhead in front of his body. On the downswing, the clubhead is outside of his hands so he can release the club freely and hit a power fade. All of which has been tailored under Harmon’s watchful eye.
His length off the tee has been a noted strength over the years, striking an average of 309 yards on the PGA Tour in 2019.
“The one thing Brooks always had is a tremendous amount of speed. He was able to hit the ball a long way. He has become a more complete player over the last four or five years. Everyone knows how far he can hit the ball with his driver, but if you look at some of the other categories, he’s really improved,” Harmon said.
The Jupiter resident is one of the most improved iron players in the game and ranked 11th in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green on the PGA Tour last season, gaining +0.64 strokes per round with his strong approach play. This was the first time since 2014 that he ranked inside the top-60.
For all the serious power off the tee, he has a deft touch around the greens and a mindset to make golf look simpler than it is.
“In 2017, he was 97th in strokes gained: approach, and last year he was just outside the top-10. Most people don’t think he’s a great iron player and can do anything else except. But he’s shown vast improvements,” says Harmon.
“It’s been fun to watch Brooks’ evolution as a player and it’s been fun to watch him improve in areas of his game that people don’t think he’s good at.
“The run he has been on since 2017 has been amazing. To get to number one in the world and to watch all the stuff that’s gone in to get there is amazing to see.”
Mentally, Koepka is one of the toughest around.
He thrives on the feeling of being slighted and plays with a chip on his shoulder, something central to his four major triumphs.
How many more chips will he be able to find over the next few years, though? Surely he realises his peers rank him as one of the finest to grace the game.
Tiger Woods certainly appreciates his talent.
“At 29 he has got many more years ahead of him where he can do this. He paid his dues. He found a game and a dedication that he needed to play well,” Woods said after the PGA Championship in 2019.
“Brooksy has just got pure power and he’s an athlete. He could have easily been a baseball player.”
Young and fearless, not turning 30 til May, he’s at a wonderful stage but that expectation is only going to increase as he moves on in life.
For all the skills and mental toughness needed on the course, it will be interesting to see if he will possess the same drive to win trophies in three to five years’ time.
All the big players have the potential to win on any given weekend but it comes down to the hunger, the ruthlessness, the selfishness to put golf first and keep the mind uncontaminated. Koepka must not let the outside music distract the melody he is making.
“Brooks has this uncanny ability to not be looking in the rear view mirror or looking around the corner to see what’s coming. I think he’s got a great understanding to know the only thing he can control is what’s actually happening right now,” Harmon said.
“One of the things that helps him is that he’s even-keeled off the course. He doesn’t get too bothered about things. He doesn’t have the extreme high and extreme low.”
A great example of this was during the 2019 Masters when he lost by a shot to Tiger Woods. On the 12th hole, he dropped the ball in the water and settled for a double bogey.
Whereas some players would crack after falling further behind the lead, Koepka responded with a stunning eagle on the 13th to finish second.
“When he does make mistakes, he has a great ability to forget about it and make them part of what he’s thinking,” he said.
“He would say, ‘If I make double, it doesn’t do me good to stop and waste time thinking about them because I can’t change them’. Mentally he’s one of the strongest golfers I’ve ever been around, that’s why I think he’s going to continue to have opportunities in the major championships.
“He has an enormous amount of talent and a good demeanour that helps him especially in the majors when things can get difficult.”
An absolute rock on the major stage, Koepka finished T4 or better in all four tournaments last year, winning the PGA Championship for his fourth major.
Indeed, with his recent successes, could Koepka be the late bolter of the post-Tiger generation to end up with the most majors?
McIlroy is level with Koepka on four, Jordan Spieth is close behind on three while Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas have one each.
Yet with the consistent Rickie Fowler still to get off the mark, this proves how difficult these tournaments are to win.
It’s hard to say how many Koepka could end up winning but he is in the ideal position, with a powerful game off the tee and an arrow-like short game contributing to his success. The American, himself, has set his sights on 10 majors.
“Brooks thinks he can get to double digits,” said Harmon. “I believe Brooks has the type of game to keep challenging for majors for years to come. The thing he has going for him, as is all of these guys who have won multiple majors, Brooks always says the hardest thing to do is win your first one.”
Since 2015, his game has sparkled, finishing in the top-10s at 11 of the 18 majors he has competed in.
“Once you have opportunities to win afterwards, if you are lucky enough, you know what to expect then. If you look at Tiger (Woods), Rory (McIlroy), Phil (Mickelson), Vijay (Singh) and Jordan (Spieth) who have won multiple majors, you’re in such rarefied air,” said Harmon.
KOEPKA V MCILROY
McIlroy (30) and Koepka’s (29) ages – born one year in the difference – and their four majors apiece create an obvious storyline for a rivalry which has been devoid due to the dominance of Tiger Woods.
Coming off a year where Koepka blew past McIlroy to clinch victory at the World Golf Championship in Memphis when the two were in the final pairing. Two months later, the Northern Irishman returned the favour at the Tour Championship to win the FedEX Cup as Koepka watched on.
Weeks after, McIlroy would go on to be named PGA Tour Player of the Year, and not Koepka, who won a fourth major, recorded top-five finishes in each of the majors and finished the year as world number one.
“Rory was the benchmark. If you had told somebody back in 2014 that Brooks was going to have the same amount of majors as Rory in 2020, number one, you wouldn’t have believed them. You would thought Rory’s number would be eight or nine because he’s such an amazing golfer,” Harmon said of McIlroy’s sheer talents.
With both players in such a sweet spot, genuine rivalry could form over the next 12 months.
McIlroy’s last major came in 2014, when he was in the midst of securing PGA Tour status. Since then, Koepka has been a dominant force, winning four majors and finishing T2-1-2-T4 in the four majors last year.
For Koepka, there is no rivalry.
“I’ve been out here for what, five years. Rory hasn’t won a major since I’ve been on the PGA Tour. So I don’t view it as a rivalry,” he said before the CJ Cup in October.
In response, McIlroy was more diplomatic, saying: “What Brooks said wasn’t wrong. I mean, he’s been the best player in the world the last couple years – four majors. I don’t think he had to remind me that I haven’t won one in a while.”
More words will be exchanged this season no doubt.
Many of golf’s observers agree there could be a duel brewing with both players on the same amount of majors and ranked number one and two in the world respectively. In addition to that, McIlroy is coming off his most consistent season to date and success at the majors looks to be edging closer than ever.
“For Brooks to be in that same major conversation with the same amount as Rory is amazing to me. When I saw Rory come out, I said ‘wow’ because, outside of Tiger, he was one of the best players I’d seen. I think Rory’s in a great place at the moment,” said Harmon.
“With Brooks coming on the scene, the competition is getting harder and harder. There is this want for both Rory and Brooks to do well. They respect each others’ game so much. When they look at each other, they see the same person: the distance, the confidence, the same amount of majors.”
“Rory has been able to look at other players in the past and say I can hit it further than you, I’ve won more tournaments than you. I think the reason why Rory and Brooks have brought out the best in each other in the last year is because it is so important for them to try and keeping win majors.
“I believe Brooks has the type of game to keep challenging for majors, the same for Rory too.”
He may have taken the scenic route to becoming a champion, but the path to all-time greatness is much clearer. All the signposts point to this being Koepka’s era.
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