FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – It’s funny what one capricious gust of wind can do.
When Tiger Woods finished his pre-PGA Championship interview in the media center Tuesday morning at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course, more than half of those in the packed room got up and left, even though they were told that defending PGA champion Brooks Koepka would arrive in just a moment.
The media exodus, a rush that would’ve been rivaled only by an announcement of free pizza in the back of the media center, created its own zephyr.
The gust I’m talking about is the one that happened last month during the Masters Tournament’s final round, at the par-3 12th hole. Koepka didn’t miss a shot on his final nine that day, including the 9-iron he hit at the 12th. That ill-timed gust of wind knocked his tee shot into Rae’s Creek, leading to a double bogey, just as the unpredictable breezes likewise fooled Francesco Molinari and Tony Finau.
Koepka finished second, one stroke behind Tiger Woods. Take away that gust and Koepka very well might have held off Woods, just as he did at the PGA Championship last summer in St. Louis. The golf media still would be excited about Woods, but right now we would be talking about the newly minted Brooks Koepka Era. That would’ve been his fourth major championship in a little less than two years.
Golf eras have been proclaimed over far less – see Sports Illustrated covers from 2011 after Rory McIlroy’s first major title, the U.S. Open, and 2015 after Jordan Spieth’s first major title, the Masters. McIlroy won three more majors but none since 2014. Spieth snagged two more but hasn’t won anything in nearly two years. Era forecasting is an inexact science.
Koepka has been slow to get the recognition he has earned, but that win in St. Louis did the trick. The media who ducked out on Koepka here didn’t do so in a snub to him. They are on 24/7 Tiger Watch. Woods is his own news cycle, just short of being his own cable channel. I get that. Woods is barely a month removed from his comeback-capping Masters victory, the crowning achievement of his career … so far.
A foundation has been laid, however. If Koepka does blossom into a golf era, the past 24 months marked its birth. His past nine major finishes, dating to the 2016 PGA, are 4, 11, 1, 6, 13, 1, 39, 1, 2. What’s the word for that? Trending.
Until further notice, Koepka is my default choice to win each major. He wins with the simple efficiency of a carpenter nailing together a wall. Whatever he needs to do next to complete the task, Koepka does it. He’s 29, as fit and strong as anyone – and that includes his buddy and usual weightlifting partner, Dustin Johnson – and owns a double helping of self-belief.
I’ve been a fan of his confidence since before the Masters, when he was asked about preventing Woods from winning his 15th major title at last summer’s PGA. “I enjoyed stopping history,” Koepka said.
That’s the attitude of a big-game hunter. The more I learn about Koepka and what he thinks, the more I am impressed.
He knows what works for him. Like playing the week before a major, for instance.
“Every time I’ve won, I’ve played the week before,” said Koepka, whose major titles outnumber his regular tour titles by a 3-2 score. “Playing that week before, building a rhythm, just getting a little bit more touch, a little more feel and then working on whatever I need to work on, it’s pretty simple.”
Koepka knows another key thing that works at major championships: hitting fairways. He developed a tee shot last year at Shinnecock Hills during the U.S. Open while working with instructor Claude Harmon Jr. Koepka calls the shot a “fairway finder,” and it came from a drill they developed on the range to make sure that he hit a left-to-right fade.
“All I do is set up left and feel like I hit down on it a little bit more,” he said. “It’s always going to start at the left side of the fairway and come back. The ball flight is a little bit lower, but I feel like I’m hitting the driver way better, with way more control.”
Hitting fairways will be crucial this week at Bethpage Black. The rough here isn’t U.S. Open depth, but Long Island has had plenty of rain this spring, and the grass is green and lush. The rough is industrial-strength grabby.
Koepka is 1-1 versus Woods in the past two majors, but he doesn’t consider that to be a rivalry. A real rivalry involves football teams and a couple of decades, Koepka said. Asked if he feared Woods, Koepka matter-of-factly answered, “What’s the point in fearing anybody? We’re not fighting. So, what’s there to be afraid of?”
Thanks to those three major titles, Koepka no longer is reticent to say what he thinks, even if it may be taken the wrong way by some.
He likes the way he’s rolling the ball with his putter. “Anything inside 8 feet, I feel like it’s good; I’m going to make it,” he said.
He thinks majors are the easiest tournaments to win. Not easy to win, just easiest. His thinking mirrors exactly what Jack Nicklaus said back in the 1970s and ’80s.
“There’s 156 players in the field, so you figure at least 80 of them, I’m just going to beat,” Koepka said. “The other half, half of them won’t play well, so you’re down to maybe 35. The pressure is going to get to some of them. That leaves only a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys. One of the big things I’ve learned is you don’t have to try to go win it; just hang around. If you hang around, good things happen.”
Asked if he had any goals, majors-wise, given that he’s already got three on his resume, Koepka conceded something that he could have kept to himself: “I see no reason I can’t get to double digits.”
Ten majors? Gary Player, Tom Watson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead didn’t get to 10 majors. Koepka is the man of the moment, other than Woods, and rest assured, that bold comment was written down in a lot of notebooks Tuesday, especially by European writers filing away items for future Ryder Cup fodder.
“I feel like he definitely could do it,” Johnson said. “He’s a great player. He does have a lot of confidence, but that’s what you need in this game.”
Koepka also has the requisite short memory, indicating that he already has shrugged off his Masters runner-up finish. “I couldn’t care less what happened last week or a couple of years ago,” he said. “It’s all about this week.”
Someone will have to outplay Koepka to claim the PGA Championship’s hefty Wanamaker Trophy this week.
Good luck with that, gentlemen.
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle