If we have learned anything about Brooks Koepka over a period of two-year major championship dominance, it is that he lacks little when it comes to confidence.
Oh, and it bugs him when he doesn’t get what he believes to be his due.
Koepka, 29, certainly has shown plenty of evidence to back up the former. And less and less for the latter.
A player of the year award in 2018 was a justifiable acknowledgment of his accomplishments that season. Another one in 2019 would be fitting in that he added another major, was a factor in two others, and still managed to finish fourth in the last – and then added his first World Golf Championship title.
It is epic stuff, and whether Koepka believes it or not, he is not being shortchanged.
How can he be?
Koepka has earned almost universal respect for his play in the major championships going back to his 2017 U.S. Open victory at Erin Hills. Despite a serious wrist injury that kept him out for three months, including the Masters, in 2018, he defended his U.S. Open title at Shinnecock Hills – the first to do so since Curtis Strange in 1989. He added the PGA Championship for a third major title.
And then came 2019, when he finished second by a shot at the Masters to Tiger Woods, won the PGA Championship again, finished second to Gary Woodand by three at the U.S. Open and was on the leaderboard, eventually finishing tied for fourth at the British Open. A week later, he won the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, staring down Rory McIlroy in the final round.
“As a whole, it’s awesome,” Koepka said. “That’s what I’m striving to do – to play well in the big events. I sort of did that. The (British Open) was disappointing, but the rest of them have been great. I’m not going to lie; it’s been fun. I would have just liked to have made a few more putts and finished it off with a bunch of second places.”
Koepka knew catching Shane Lowry during the final round at Royal Portrush might have been too much to ask, and so there was a tinge of disappointment despite the high finish.
Still, Koepka has been in the top five at five straight majors, including all four this year – a feat accomplished by just four other players in the Masters era: Jack Nicklaus in 1971 and 1973; Tiger Woods in 2000 and 2005; Rickie Fowler in 2014 and Jordan Spieth in 2015.
Or, to put it another way, Koepka went up against 551 golfers in the four majors this year. He beat or tied 546 of them.
Perhaps it is as simple as coming up with a plan to approach the game’s biggest tournaments.
Koepka explained earlier this year that the major tournaments are easier to win than the regular ones – he had just two non-major victories through the British Open until the WGC victory gave him a third – and that’ he’s mentally stronger than half the competitors in the field. Then, he said, pressure will ultimately break many of the 35 players who are legitimate contenders.
“It only leaves you with a few more,” he said. “And you just have to beat those guys.”
It almost seems too easy, but of course it goes beyond a mental approach. There is the physical gifts and work that go into honing a world-class golf game.
Koepka was just 6 years old when Woods won the first of 15 major championships at the 1997 Masters and the 2019 winner at Augusta National helped make golf a viable option for Brooks and other young athletes who lived in the gym and saw themselves as versatile athletes rather than just golfers.
“Brooks has never been a golf nerd,” said his coach, Claude Harmon III.
Now that the swaggering Koepka has four majors to his credit, he feels it is okay to declare his intent to win at least six more.
“Yeah, I’ve got a number,” he said. “I don’t see why you can’t get to double digits.”
Of course, if there is an area that is lacking, it is Koepka’s playing in the “minors,” the regular tour events that make up the backbone of golf’s schedule. Getting to No. 1 in the world requires more than just good play in the majors, and yet Koepka is rather ordinary in the weekly events. Aside from his victories at the 2015 Waste Management Phoenix Open and 2018 CJ Cup in South Korea, Koepka has no regular victories. He did win the high-profile, limited field WGC tournament in Memphis, which is major caliber, to run his record in the majors to four wins, record in the minors to three wins. It is an oddity, given his success in the biggest of tournaments.
It probably didn’t help when Koepka admitted he doesn’t put as much into the lesser events.
“I just practice before the majors,” he said. “Regular tournaments, I don’t practice. When you see me on TV that’s when I play golf.”
And yet, it took years of toil for Koepka to reach this point. Once a college hothead when he was at Florida State, Koepka has fueled that intensity in another direction. He never seems to get rattled, and his caddie, Rickie Elliott, was at a loss to explain it. “I don’t know,” he said. “It must be just in him.”
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Koepka, 29, took a more obscure yet adventurous route to golf’s big stage. A two-time Atlantic Coast Player of the Year at Florida State, Koepka turned pro in 2012 but failed to earn his PGA Tour card at the annual Qualifying Tournament, which then gave immediate entry to the PGA Tour.
It turned out to be the best thing that could have happened as it forced him overseas. Koepka had status on the Challenge Tour – the European Tour equivalent to the Korn Ferry Tour – and won tournaments in Italy, Spain and Scotland in 2013 to earn a promotion to the big tour as well as a full exemption in 2014.
Along the way, he played in countries such as England, France, Belguim, the Czech Republic, South, Africa, Kenya and Portugal. He estimates having played tournament golf in more than 20 different countries.
And he impressed by doing so. After earning his third Challenge Tour victory in June of 2013 in Scotland, he boarded a late flight to London so he could participate in the next day’s 36-hole Open Championship qualifier. With little sleep, Koepka earned a spot, secured a practice round with Phil Mickelson at Muirfield, and earned the eventual champion’s praise.
“I can see why he earned the right to get on the European Tour by winning three times so quickly on the Challenge Tour,” Mickelson said.
He also showed that there is another way to climb into golf’s top level outside of playing the Web.com Tour.
“Going that route, going over to Europe, it toughened me,” Koepka said. “It was a blessing in disguise. It just toughens you up, your drive. It makes you want to get out here that much more.”
Woods undoubtedly respects Koepka’s poise and power and has a high regard for those who could have successfully competed in other sports. And by those who never be intimidated by him. Koepka has Woods’ determination, as well as being stronger and longer.
“The thing I get form this kid is he’s got a lot of confidence, and nothing bothers him,” said Joe LaCava, Woods’ caddie. “He was oblivious to the crowd screaming and yelling for Tiger.”
Of course, that hasn’t always been the case. He’s made it clear that at times he has felt underappreciated, especially when he was going for a second straight U.S. Open title last year. Some of that had to do with the fact that he missed time due to injury. No matter, Koepka took notice, as he did when he wasn’t include among the top players at various times throughout the year.
Koepka has used that as motivation, contrived or otherwise.
“You’ve got to find a chip, or you’ve got to find something to give yourself that little extra something going into a tournament,” he said. “To really want to push you over that line.”
No doubt, it is working.
Wellington To The World Stage
While golfer Brooks Koepka is now a household name among millions of golfers (and non-golfers) worldwide, his days as an up-and-coming junior golfer weren’t that many years ago. The four-time major champion (2017 and 2018 U.S. Opens plus the 2018 and 2019 PGA Championships) grew up in Wellington, Florida, a western suburb of West Palm Beach. And, Brooks is actually the by-product of a junior golf program at a local public golf course – the Okeeheelee Golf Course, in suburban West Palm Beach. At Okeeheelee, Brooks spent countless hours as a youngster hitting balls on the driving range plus pitching, chipping and putting around the practice putting green – forever honing his skills for the future.
Brooks’ memories of his days playing golf at Okeeheelee are vivid.
“Growing up at Okeeheelee was a blast!” remembered Brooks. “We would get dropped off at 7:30 every morning and we would get picked up at dark. I learned how to play the game there and it will always hold a special place in my heart.”
He was not alone at Okeeheelee. He was joined by his younger brother, Chase, who currently plays professional golf on the Challenge Tour in Europe.
Much of the credit for Brooks’ interest in golf can be given to his father.
“Brooks hit some of my cut-down clubs from the time he was three until I got him his first junior set of clubs at age seven to play in a tournament at Okeeheelee,” recalled Bob Koepka, Brooks’ dad. “He liked golf at an early age and from age 7-12, he started showing a passion for the game, especially after I took him to the Masters at age eight.”
Those who have watched Brooks matriculate as a golfer have vivid memories of his golfing childhood.
“I had the privilege and honor of coaching many fine golfers and many fine young men during my ten plus years of coaching the golf team at Cardinal Newman High School,” recalled Greg Sherman, Koepka’s high school golf coach. “I can’t really exactly say why Brooks stood out among them, but he did.”
“He had a passion for golf and his work ethic stood out,” recalled Donna White, director, Golf Professional Services, Inc. “He and his brother would play, play, play all day. He was always a serious player. With such great facilities at Okeeheelee, Brooks had an advantage over other junior golfers in south Florida.”
“Brooks was the young man you saw arrive first in the morning and was the last to leave at night,” remembered Mary-Lee Cobick, President, Junior Golf Foundation of America, Inc. “Brooks played and worked on his short game all day long.”
Brooks attributes his current success to his local junior golf experiences.
“I can’t say enough about the Junior Golf Foundation of America’s junior golf programs at Okeeheelee,” said Brooks. “It was on those golf courses and through those tournaments that I fell in love with the game. I can honestly say that I would not be where I’m at today if those opportunities were not available to me when I was younger.”
Brooks was also fortunate enough and good enough to start playing high school golf as early as the 6th grade, as a member of the Wellington Christian School golf team.
But, Brooks was not just playing golf as a child. He played many sports under the south Florida year-round sunshine.
“Growing up, Brooks played soccer, roller hockey, basketball, and baseball, where he played shortstop, catcher, and pitcher,” recalled Bob Koepka. “At age 12, he quit baseball and focused just on golf.”
As a former collegiate baseball pitcher, Bob admits that he was a little sad to see his oldest son give up playing a sport that meant so much to his family, as Brooks’ great uncle is Dick Groat, who was the MVP of the National League in 1960 while playing for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
“Admittedly, I was disappointed at first to see him quit baseball, but it turned out to be the right decision,” added Bob Koepka.
The foundation for Brooks’ eventual rise stardom really began when he started working with local golf instructor/teaching pro Warren Bottke. Brooks was 10 at the time. Ironically, Bob Koepka had been taught by Bottke and Bob realized that Brooks needed the same tutelage. Bottke and Brooks worked together until Brooks turned 18 and then went to college at Florida State.
“I emphasized the proper fundamentals of the swing and I was able to get Brooks to a certain point,” recalled Bob Koepka, who has a single-digit handicap. “Then, I handed him over to Warren. For many years, Brooks always said that he wanted to play professional golf, but I really didn’t know what it took to be that good.”
Bottke agreed to teach Brooks, under one condition. Bob had to agree to be the dad, while Bottle would be the instructor. An agreement was reached.
The foundation of Bottke’s message to Brooks has always been PGA – Posture, Grip, and Alignment. According to Bottke, when he watches Brooks play tournament golf, he can see that Brooks is mentally going through those check points before every swing.
“I gave him a roadmap to success,” said Bottke.
And, Brooks has not deviated from those words of wisdom.
Bob Koepka also taught his two sons that winning at anything doesn’t just happen. It requires focus and determination.
“I always made the boys figure out how to win at anything and never let them win whether it was playing cards or sports,” added Bob. “It was up to them to either physically or mentally rise up to the challenge.”
Brooks has certainly risen to the challenge. And, he’s still rising.
In many respects, Bob Koepka has known for a few years that his oldest son has had what it takes to win golf tournaments.
In the fall of 2006, during Brooks’ junior year in high school, the ‘ahaa’ moment took place when Brooks was playing in the Florida high school state championship golf tournament.
“I had his high school coach tell him he was four shots back with seven holes to play for the state championship,” recalled Bob. “He (Brooks) proceeded to go five under to capture the title.”
One of the turning points in Brooks’ development took place after his junior year of college, when Brooks returned home from Florida State University with a new cut swing that he had been taught back at FSU. Bob Koepka didn’t like what he saw so he asked legendary pro Bob Toski, who lives in south Florida, to watch Brooks. Toski didn’t like Brooks’ new cut swing either and he quickly offered a swing change which produced immediate results.
While watching Brooks implement Toski’s suggestions, Bob Koepka remembers Toski making one remark:
“With that swing, your kid is going to win majors,” said Toski. Bob Koepka raised his eyebrows after hearing Toski’s analysis when he realized Toski was referring to more than one major title. But, Toski was correct.
As for Bottke’s current role in the life of his star pupil, they remain in touch.
“He’ll text me out of the blue,” said Bottke, who was present at Bethpage Black in May when Brooks successfully defended his PGA title.
Bottke is very proud of Brooks’ matriculation as a golf professional.
“He’s not cocky, he’s confident,” stated Bottke.
One of Bottke’s most vivid memories of Brooks was when he was 13 or 14 and declared that he would play in the Masters one day. Bottke responded by promising Brooks that when he gets invited to play in the Masters, that he would be there on the first tee on that Thursday.
Both Brooks and Bottke kept their word.
When Brooks was invited to play in the 2015 Masters, Bottke was standing among the patrons next to the first tee.
Bottke remembers what Brooks said to him that day at the Augusta National Golf Club.
“You have no idea how much it means to me for you to be here today,” were Brooks’ words to his teacher, according to Bottke.
That year, Brooks made the cut in his Augusta debut and finished in a tie for 33rd place. This past spring, he had his best finish at Augusta – second place, just one shot behind the eventual winner, Tiger Woods. Don’t be surprised to see Brooks upgrade that second-place finish to a first-place finish in 2020.
There is a strong charitable side to Brooks, as well. When he was recovering from a severe left wrist injury in the spring of 2017, which kept him away from the PGA Tour and the 2017 Masters, he made a public appearance at Okeeheelee during the club’s 11th Annual Putting Classic, as a goodwill gesture. And, he brought along his U.S. Open trophy, too.
“This is the first time that the actual U.S. Open trophy has ever been on display at our golf course,” beamed Mac Hood, golf course manager, Okeeheelee Golf Course.
With his two PGA Championship wins and his two U.S. Open victories, Brooks has now won four out of the last eleven majors that have been played, dating back to the 2017 U.S. Open. Of course, he missed the 2018 Masters due to injury. Along the way, he had a runner-up finish in the 2019 Masters and 2019 U.S. Open. And, a 4th place-tie at the 2019 Open Championship at Northern Ireland’s historic Royal Portrush Golf Club. That’s five consecutive top-four finishes in major championships, starting at the 2018 PGA – two wins, two seconds, and a fourth-place tie. By finishing in the top five in all four majors in one calendar year (2019), Brooks is the fifth golfer in history to achieve such success, joining Jack Nicklaus, Tiger Woods, Rickie Fowler, and Jordan Spieth on the list.
Bob Koepka knows his son has what it takes to add a Masters green jacket to his wardrobe, which could come as early as April 2020, when the world’s greatest golfers rendezvous at the Augusta National Golf Club in Augusta, Georgia. Soon after the conclusion of the 2019 Open Championship at Royal Portrush, Koepka became the betting favorite in Las Vegas at 10-1 for the 2020 Masters.
“Brooks is at his best when his back is against the wall and is mentally strong enough to take his game to the next level to reach the goal at hand,” stated Bob.
As a proud Bob Koepka reflects on his oldest son’s maturation as a golfer, he realized that he was making improvements every year, but he admits that he didn’t expect his son to become golf’s top player.
“I knew he was always a good player, but never once dreamed of him reaching the heights of winning majors and as one of the top golfers in the world!” confessed Bob Koepka.
Soon after the conclusion of the 2018 PGA Tour season, Brooks was honored as the Player of the Year by a number of organizations such as the Golf Writers Association of America, the PGA of America, and the PGA Tour. For most of 2019, Brooks has been ranked as the number one player in the world, according to the Official World Golf Rankings.
With such four top-five finishes in the four majors in 2019, don’t expect Brooks to relinquish that #1 ranking anytime soon. And, don’t be surprised to see Brooks pick up another set of season-long honors for his play in 2019.
Other career highlights for Brooks have been qualifying for the 2016 and 2018 U.S. Ryder Cup teams and the 2017 U.S. President’s Cup team. The U.S. won the 2016 Ryder Cup, won the 2017 President’s Cup, and then lost the 2018 Ryder Cup against Europe at the Le Golf National, near Paris, France. Brooks will be on the 2019 U.S. President’s Cup team in December when it meets the international squad in December.
Expect Brooks to be a member of many U.S. Ryder Cup and President’s Cup teams over the next 10-15 years, possibly playing alongside brother Chase – as they did years ago at Okeeheelee.
Only time will tell.
September 01, 2019