AUGUSTA, Ga. – Brooks Koepka can do something other players simply can’t.
He can fade into the background, out of the picture, off the radar.
Nobody thought much about him as the defending U.S. Open champion last year at Shinnecock Hills. He’d been sidelined by a wrist problem and hadn’t even played in the Masters. So, he wasn’t going to be a threat. Then he became the first player in 29 years to win back-to-back Opens.
He should’ve been the favorite for the PGA Championship at Bellerive in August. But Francesco Molinari was the Flavor of the Month after his British Open victory at Carnoustie, and Tiger Woods was in full comeback mode after making a run there, too.
You know how it is with Woods. He blots out the sun and all other contenders. Then Koepka, who hadn’t exactly been a blabbermouth in winning his first two major titles, held off a final-round charge by Woods and won the PGA. He is a full-fledged superstar, right? Whom else would you pick to win the Masters this week? He was a no-brainer.
Except Koepka barely had cracked an egg this year in regular PGA Tour events. That’s hyperbole for the sake of argument. He did finish second at the Honda Classic, and if he’d won that tournament instead of first-time winner Keith Mitchell, we’d be talking about how Koepka picked up where he left off. We’re the media. Our attention spans are similar to those of tiny gnats. But don’t get cocky. So are yours.
Worse, Koepka didn’t look well in the past month. He went on some kind of unusual – I’m tempted to say crazy but I won’t – crash-combo platter of diet and exercise and lost a lot of weight. Was it for health reasons? Did he have some kind of issue? Did he just want to shed weight for an upcoming magazine photo shoot that was going to focus on his body and this whole downturn was mere vanity?
It is no small feat to win three of the past six majors in which he has played and not be part of the Masters conversation. Yet Koepka pulled it off again. There was the Tiger Woods sun-blot effect. Justin Rose, the new No. 1 player in the world, and Dustin Johnson, the former No. 1. Rory McIlroy and his quest for the career Grand Slam.
A somewhat quiet opening round at the Masters erupted right around happy hour as a squadron of famed players finished strong in the early evening.
Our man Koepka turned it on. He has a knack for playing his best on the toughest courses and on the biggest stages. This time, he shot 31 on the back nine and made four birdies in a row, starting at the par-3 12th (scores).
He shot 6-under 66. Bryson DeChambeau matched that 66 in spectacular fashion, clanking his approach shot off the pin at 18 for his ninth birdie of the round. He, too, blistered the back nine, making birdie on the final four holes for 31.
Phil Mickelson’s back-nine 33 was good for 67, and Ian Poulter and Johnson posted 68s.
Let’s go with the short version: The mystery of The Koepka Phenomenon continues. He is Big Game Brooks. The scoreboards affirm it. Earlier in the week, Tom Watson, a two-time Masters champion, was asked which of the game’s bright young stars was the real deal, or was going to hit the record books hardest. He could’ve said McIlroy or Justin Thomas or Jon Rahm, or maybe even not-so-young Johnson. Watson chose Koepka.
One round of golf doesn’t mean much at fickle Augusta National. If you had arrived Thursday at 5 p.m., you wouldn’t have missed much that ultimately mattered on a partly sunny, warm and breezy spring day.
Apparently, it’s a good idea to watch Koepka pretty closely and quit semi-ignoring him. He owns three major titles. He’s aiming to steamroll McIlroy, who has four, and get into heady territory with Mickelson and Seve Ballesteros, 5; and Nick Faldo, 6.
Koepka will kick away a major one of these days. Every player does. Or he’ll lose a heartbreaker the way Rose lost one to Sergia Garcia here in a playoff in 2017. It hasn’t happened yet. So far, Koepka has crushed Shinnecock Hills and held off a Woods charge. Few players can brag about the latter.
“I spoiled everybody’s dreams last time,” Koepka said jokingly earlier this week. “It would be cool to see Tiger win. I think everybody in the field would love to stop him. I mean, I enjoyed stopping history. I had a great time.”
Koepka figured that Thursday probably was the best ball-striking round he has enjoyed in a major championship, topping his previous best, the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills.
“I left myself a lot of good looks, hit a lot of good puts,” he said. “I just didn’t make too many. I drove it, I shaped it, I flighted it and coming into the greens, controlling the spin, trajectory – everything was about as good as I could have hit it today.”
That’s a bit of a scary thought, that golf’s overall hottest player of the past two years is totally in control, or was on Thursday. I don’t know where you want to be in relation to Koepka if you’re another player. But I do know that four shots behind Koepka, where Woods and others reside, is not a prime location.
I am making this my new go-to Brooks Koepka quote: “I enjoyed stopping history.”
It’s got legs. So does Koepka. Pretty soon, maybe even this weekend, we may notice that he’s making history, not just stopping it.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle