News & Opinion

Koepka stands on cusp of major moments

Brooks Koepka
Brooks Koepka, winner of consecutive U.S. Opens, is a big reason why Americans have won 5 straight major championships entering this week’s British Open at Carnoustie.

The Brooks Watch starts now. It is time to take Brooks Koepka more seriously.

Before last week’s PGA Championship, Koepka said he didn’t see any reason why he couldn’t get to double digits in major championships won. That statement was big and bold, just like the 29-year-old south Floridian. Or a Kardashian.

Ten seemed like a silly number when Jack Nicklaus predicted a young Tiger Woods would win as many Masters as he and Arnold Palmer combined: 10. Woods, 43, has made it halfway.

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Brooks Koepka

Ten does not seem ludicrous in the case of Koepka. His comment was a gutsy, confident and maybe a little-too-honest thing to say. It rubbed some people the wrong way. Then he backed it up by impressively winning No. 4 at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course. He shot 7 under par in the first round. No one else even finished at 7 under for 72 holes.

Golf Channel analyst David Duval had the best reaction to Koepka after he put a number on his expectations. “I believe him,” Duval said.

Seeing is believing. I’m a believer, too. Koepka racked up four major titles in 23 months. He’s piling them on his plate like Charles Barkley in the buffet line at a Mexican restaurant. No golfer in history won his first four majors in such a short time span.

I’m not saying Koepka is going to make a run at Nicklaus’ 18 majors or catch Woods at 15. A million things can go wrong on the way there. The late writer Dan Jenkins predicted in 2001 that Woods would win 24 majors but added, “Only two things can stop Tiger: injury or a bad marriage.”

Koepka has won so many majors so quickly, so easily and so impressively that it would be foolish to ignore his potential as a player of considerable historical significance.

You might be thinking, Hey, he’s got only four majors. Get off the bandwagon. He’s not even close.

Do the math. Koepka won four of his past eight major championships. If he continues that hotter-than-a-Panama-summer pace for three more years, he’ll hit double digits. And don’t forget that we still have two more majors to play this summer.

Four majors is the springboard to making a mark in golf history. Suppose that Koepka were to win the British Open at Royal Portrush in July. He’ll be one of the favorites there, if not the favorite. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, grew up in Portrush and is on a first-name basis with every blade of grass on the course.

A fifth major would move Koepka up the all-time list to join Seve Ballesteros, Byron Nelson and Phil Mickelson, among others. Let that sentence percolate. Koepka and Ballesteros? That should get your attention.

Next year’s majors at Harding Park (PGA) and Winged Foot (U.S. Open) are on courses that could suit Koepka, although from what we’ve seen, he can play well anywhere when he’s on.

A sixth major would lift him up to Lee Trevino and Nick Faldo on the list. That’s heady stuff.

Early-warning system: The 2021 majors are teed up for a big hitter. The Masters is followed by a PGA at Kiawah Island’s Ocean Course, a U.S. Open at Torrey Pines and an Open Championship at the Old Course. That could be a very good year for someone such as Koepka, or his workout buddy, Dustin Johnson.

If Koepka would get to seven, wow; he would be in rarefied air: Harry Vardon, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen and Arnold Palmer. Eight? Tom Watson. Nine? Ben Hogan and Gary Player.

In double figures, the only remaining targets would be Walter Hagen (11), Woods and Nicklaus.

That’s a lot of what-if history. For Koepka or anyone to move up in the annals of great golf, it requires good health. He had an injured left wrist that forced him to miss the Masters last year. He hurt it playing golf. Though he’s fine now, obviously, he’s got a powerful swing and hits the ball with a lot of force. I’d be concerned about a reoccurrence of that injury.

Fame and fortune are potential distractions. Rory McIlroy signed a $250 million Nike deal in 2013. He won the last of his four majors in 2014.

Complacency is a human trait. It is more difficult than ever to stay single-mindedly focused on golf to do what Woods did and chase history, especially if you’ve got more money than a normal person could spend in three lifetimes.

As for the argument that Koepka, at 29, is getting too late of a start to go deep in history, forget it. The only players in history to have more majors before they turned 30 than Koepka were Woods, 10, and Bobby Jones and Nicklaus, 7.

Ben Hogan didn’t win his first major until he was 34. His career was delayed because his car hit a bus, and the bus won. Mickelson, meanwhile, didn’t snag his first major until the 2004 Masters, when he was two months shy of his 34th birthday.

Koepka and majors seem to be made for each other. Like Starsky and Hutch. Or Frosted Flakes and chocolate milk.

Koepka is clearly more interested in trophies than money, especially the game’s biggest trophies. He’s already got four of them.

It’s official. The chase is on.

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle