News & Opinion

Koepka works part time, wins full time

Meet Brooks Koepka. Part-time golfer, four-time major champion, big-time chameleon. The more we learn about the guy, the less we seem to know. Does he want more love and attention for all he’s accomplished over the past two years, or is that just a competitive ploy? When he’s leading the PGA by seven shots after 36 holes and CBS sends a camera guy out to shoot him arriving for his third round, why does Koepka shoo away his girlfriend without even giving her a peck on the cheek?

Meet Brooks Koepka. Part-time golfer, four-time major champion, big-time chameleon. The more we learn about the guy, the less we seem to know. Does he want more love and attention for all he’s accomplished over the past two years, or is that just a competitive ploy? When he’s leading the PGA by seven shots after 36 holes and CBS sends a camera guy out to shoot him arriving for his third round, why does Koepka shoo away his girlfriend without even giving her a peck on the cheek?

Jena Sims is her name. She showed up for ESPN’s annual awards show last week wearing a fishnet dress and no bra, then joked about it on Instagram, where you can find photos of her – guess what? – making out with her favorite golfer. Are we trying to turn heads here, or are we more intent on chopping them off? It’s as if Koepka turns into some superhero/serial killer at the game’s biggest tournaments, leaves with the trophy and a paycheck just south of $2 million, then hops into a phone booth and changes back into a college sophomore totally stoked for spring break.

Brooks Koepka
After a week on Long Island for the 2018 U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka leaves with the trophy and the girl.

Who knew? Why does the world’s top-ranked player show up at standard PGA Tour events and roll over like a pussycat (T-50 in Canada, T-57 in Hartford, 65th in Minneapolis), then hunt big game like a saber-toothed tiger (no pun intended) when things matter the most?

“I just practice before the majors,” Koepka conceded during his Tuesday trip to the media center at Royal Portrush, Northern Ireland, site of this week’s British Open (tee times). “Regular tournaments, I don’t practice. When you see me on TV, that’s when I play golf.”

And with that 13-second sound bite, golf’s muscular mystery man blew up conventional wisdom, the precept of hard work and Twitter, all in one grenade. Koepka is clearly a different kind of cat. It is hardly uncommon for a tour pro to go 10 days without touching a club, as he did between his last two starts, but to make such a clear distinction between the Travelers Championship and the British Open, at least in terms of physical preparation and competitive mindset, is somewhere between highly unorthodox and extremely successful.

Carlos Franco didn’t practice, which is probably why he didn’t last long. The Paraguayan won four Tour events from 1999 to 2004, when he became known for taking three weeks off, then hitting five balls on the range before heading to the first tee. Franco would soon disappear, as the late Bruce Lietzke often did, but Lietzke vanished for different reasons and compiled a much more impressive body of work: 13 Tour victories and seven more on the 50-and-older circuit, including the 2003 U.S. Senior Open.

My longtime friend/podcast partner Jeff Rude, who knows more about Lietzke than Lietzke knew about Lietzke, can fill up most of an evening with stories about the mild-mannered Texan’s reluctance to deprioritize his family for a life on the road. It’s one reason he spent a hundred hours under the hood of a 1967 Mustang for every 10 minutes on the practice range. Some guys just love vintage cars a lot more than golf, but when you can dial up a soaring fade 275 yards on command and shoot a 66 without a care in the world, you make a lot more money wearing a visor than if you were an auto mechanic.

Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods built their schedules around the majors to a much greater extent than did other players of their eras, but that mentality evolved as a perk of greatness more than a general lack of interest in playing golf. If Koepka really doesn’t practice before the Run of the Mill Classic – and there’s no reason to believe that he was exaggerating his habits Tuesday – he copyrighted a page from Jack and Tiger well before earning access to the book.

Koepka has said he’d rather be a baseball player than a professional golfer, which is interesting, because major-leaguers have to show up four hours before the game, 162 times a year. Talk about a sport of repetitive irrelevance. I covered baseball on and off for seven years, and I can assure anyone who cares that a Twins-Orioles series in mid-August is far less competitively stimulating than four days at the RBC Canadian Open.

One could theorize that Koepka merely wants to conserve his energy for the game’s most prestigious gatherings, but when you’re built like a male stripper and own biceps the size of footballs, physical strength isn’t a problem. He arrived at Royal Portrush late last week and hit the ground grinding, or as he puts it, “early enough where I can get a few days in and kind of figure out a rhythm and figure out where I’m at.”

You don’t need a GPS to figure out this guy’s location. Koepka is in a very, very good spot. His caddie, Ricky Elliott, was one of Northern Ireland’s best young golfers as a teenager, a lifelong friend of Graeme McDowell’s who grew up playing the game at Portrush. Elliott’s familiarity of the course is so refined that he could play the old rogue blindfolded and get around just fine, which certainly doesn’t hurt Koepka’s chances of claiming a fifth major title in 25 months.

If he does pull it off, the big boy can take two weeks off, then quit the game forever. At least until next April.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: johnhawkinsgolf@gmail.com