News & Opinion

Koepka finds comfort level in major redux

Here at the 83rd Masters, Brooks Koepka is in the house, almost like some intruder creeping across creaky wooden floors, trying not to wake anybody at 5 a.m.

AUGUSTA, Ga. – Here at the 83rd Masters, Brooks Koepka is in the house, almost like some intruder creeping across creaky wooden floors, trying not to wake anybody at 5 a.m. He would appear to be a guy who could play middle linebacker and crush giant walnuts in his biceps, a man bigger than life itself, but for some mysterious reason, Koepka is a blender. He merges into traffic well. Which seems OK with him.

At Augusta National, we have Tiger Woods chasing his fifth green jacket and Rory McIlroy chasing a career Grand Slam. Having played so well on the weekend a year ago, Rickie Fowler might step forward and show us whether orange really can go with green. We have World Nos. 1 and 2, Justin Rose and Dustin Johnson, respectively, trying to add to major-trophy shelves that show more dust than silver.

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka has racked up 3 major titles since he last competed in the Masters, in 2017.

Koepka, 28, didn’t play the Masters in 2018 because of an injured left wrist. Think about this: The last time he competed here, in 2017, he hadn’t won a major. In fact, he had one PGA Tour title to his name. On Thursday, when he walks to the first tee in the final threesome of the day – a grouping with Jordan Spieth and Paul Casey – Koepka will do so as a three-time major champion (tee times). He has won three of the past seven majors (and three of his past six major starts), collecting trophies at the 2017 and ’18 U.S. Opens and last summer’s PGA, where he outpaced Woods.

“I’ve got three trophies that I haven’t had any time I’ve teed it up [here],” Koepka said Tuesday morning as storms passed through Augusta National. “Completely different player, probably. Understand how to handle pressure a lot better. Understand the golf course a lot better. Even sitting out a year, there are certain things you can pick up on when you’re watching.

“I’ve really kind of matured on and off the golf course … I think is a big deal. Everything has kind of come at me fast over the last 18 months, 20 months, and you know, learning to deal with that now, I’m becoming better at it, I guess you could say. So that makes everything a lot easier.”

This is the major championship that Koepka has played the least. A small sample size. Each year he has competed here, he has displayed progress, from T-33 in 2015, to T-21 in 2016, to T-11 in 2017, when he closed with 69, his first sub-70 score in the tournament.

His play of late has not been very on, very sharp, and part of that has been his physical well-being. Though a chiseled golfer, he decided to go on a restrictive diet that kept his calorie intake to 1,800 per day (“You look at somebody like Michael Phelps or somebody like that, eating 6,000 to 7,000 calories by lunch time,” he noted), and dropped 22 pounds, to 190. It cost him some distance off the tee, usually a strength. He missed the cut at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and tied for 56th at the Players Championship, saying he didn’t feel right. Usually a workout freak, Koepka hasn’t been in the weight room since last month’s Players. He has had a battery of blood tests run to figure things out. He's getting there.

“Finally feel like I have some energy back,” he said.

A year ago, Koepka was home in Florida for Masters week, recovering from a partially torn tendon, his left wrist encased in a soft cast. He was in pain, and he had doubts about his return, as anyone naturally would. Koepka couldn’t push down the top of a shampoo bottle. He watched some golf, and really didn’t do much beyond that. Behind the scenes, Ricky Elliott, Koepka’s caddie, thought the year might be finished. Koepka would miss four months in all, and it turned out to be a real blessing.

“I still think that four months off for him is going to be huge in his career,” Elliott said. “I think it brought him around to thinking that this game, you can’t really take it for granted. I think he played the U.S. Open [at Shinnecock] with a different mindset. It was very, very tough. You could see other players getting frustrated, and Brooks didn’t. It was the perfect timing to play well.”

Koepka shared a funny story about coming to the Masters as a youngster, brought by his dad, Bob, who is a good player. Young Brooks ran around collecting autographs, and did quite well, with about 50 of them. He remembers the ones that he really coveted that he didn’t get. No Tiger Woods. No Phil Mickelson. The Mickelson miss stung Koepka for a bit.

“I was standing by the old range, and somehow found my way kind of right by the parking lot, or something like that, and asked him for an autograph,” Koepka said. “He said no. He turned me down … probably about the only kid that Phil’s ever turned down. He told me years later, I shouldn’t have been in the parking lot. So fair enough.”

When Koepka got to the PGA Tour a few years back, he told Mickelson his Augusta autograph story during a practice round. Jokingly, Koepka told him, “Listen, man, you stiffed me, and I really didn’t like you for a long time.”

Koepka was 9 or 10 on that first visit to Augusta National, bouncing along the hills, already thinking that one day, he’d love to be competing here. Now he is. Some dreams come true. As a three-time major champion, he’ll get plenty of opportunities, and now he’s one of the guys signing the autographs.

Sorry, but none for you, Phil.

Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: Twitter: @jeffbabz62