As the PGA Championship’s 2-time defending champion, Koepka arrives at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco with a major chip on his shoulder and not a hint of regret in his heart.
Brooks Koepka plays golf and walks through life with a chip on his shoulder. And with shoulders that broad, the chip can be the size of a table leg, and he’s strong enough to carry it around.
And he wears a Michael Jordan-type look much of the time that warns you not to cross him, slight him, ignore him or ask him a stupid question. For instance, he was asked before last week’s WGC FedEx St. Jude Invitational about the state of his attitude coming into an event he won in 2019.
Questioner: Brooks, you've always been one of the more confident guys going into majors. With the recent struggles, do you still carry that mindset?
Koepka: I'm defending, aren't I?
Koepka: OK. Just checking.
At the time, the state of Koepka’s game gave no one any indication that he would be at the height of his confidence. In fact, it should have been the polar opposite. But when he’s in that me-against-them state of mind, it’s time for the golf world to pay attention.
And the time is now. Koepka also is defending this week – a two-time defender, in fact. He is at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco for the PGA Championship, having won that major in 2018 and 2019.
After Koepka’s performance last week in Memphis, 2020’s first major comes just in time. In one week, he has gone from a puzzle and an enigma to being feared again. He has things right where he wants them.
He had a chance to win the at TPC Southwind, eventually finishing tied for second behind Justin Thomas, who returned to No. 1 in the world. A loss naturally stings, but it was Koepka’s best performance in months.
He has been struggling with a lingering injury to his left knee but has insisted that the knee is not the problem. Before last week, he had missed the cut in two of his previous three events, sandwiched around a T-62 at the Memorial Tournament.
He put in a call to Pete Cowen, who is one of Europe’s most influential instructors, for another pair of eyes beside his regular coach, Claude Harmon III. Cowen told the Daily Mail of London about Koepka’s form going into the WGC St. Jude and the PGA Championship: “If I was a racehorse trainer, I’d say he had absolutely no chance.”
Cowen flew to Memphis to work with Koepka, and as is his trademark bedside manner, minced no words.
“There was a lot of expletives [Cowen said that] I can't say during this [interview], probably get fined, but yeah, he beat me up pretty good,” Koepka conceded after the first round at the St. Jude. “You get a little down, you play as bad as this, it's hard not to be a little bit down on yourself and trying to figure out why. You're kind of thinking negatively or waiting for that first bad shot or first bad thing to happen.”
Cowen first went to work on Koepka’s attitude. “When you’re not playing that well, it’s not that big of a deal,” Cowen told GolfChannel.com “You think you’ve lost your game totally, but you haven’t. You’re crying wolf as well, saying, I don’t know if I really want to play. You can’t cry wolf, because if you cry wolf too often, no one listens to you.”
Also last week, Koepka asked for help from Phil Kenyon, who has carved out a reputation in recent years as one of the top putting instructors. Kenyon changed Koepka’s grip, setup and ball position, moving the ball back toward the middle of his stance.
The immediate result of the Cowen-Kenyon collaboration was an 8-under 62 in the first round at the St. Jude. On the back nine on Sunday, Koepka made a 40-footer for birdie on the 17th hole to pull within one shot of Thomas, who had missed the green on the 18th with his second shot.
Koepka needed a birdie to have a chance to win and then did the unthinkable. Taking 3-wood, he hit his tee shot in the one place from which birdie can’t be made on the final hole at TPC Southwind: water on the left. Thomas got up and down for par before Koepka made double bogey. But in classic Koepka-speak, he talked himself into ignoring his colossal mistake.
“You're one back, you've got to take an aggressive line there [at the 18th],” Koepka said afterward. “I'm not going to bail out in those bunkers [on the right]. I didn't hit that bad of a tee shot, maybe just lined up a little bit left. [I was] pleased with it. Why wouldn't I be?”
The ultimate takeaway from Memphis for Koepka was being back in the hunt. “It was about getting into contention and getting those feelings again,” he said.
This week at Harding Park, Koepka is putting into practice his theory that major championships are easier for him to win. Obviously, it’s his own good idea because he’s won four of the past 10 majors.
“The way the course is set up, it eliminates half the field,” he said Tuesday. “Of that half, half won’t be playing well. And when you cut it down, you’ve got about 10 guys [to beat]. That’s the way I see it.”
He doesn’t like to say – out loud – whether he thinks he’s the best player in the field when he tees it up on Thursday (tee times). “That would be putting expectations on myself, and I don’t like to do that,” he said. “If I go out and play golf exactly like I know how, I think I should win."
In other words, Koepka will take that chip on his shoulder and hit you right in the mouth.
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