With a bum knee and the luster fading from his 4 major trophies, the brash, brawny American hasn’t walked the walk in a long while
Perhaps no player in the history of pro golf has pulled off a more successful invasion of the game’s competitive hierarchy than Brooks Koepka. From one career PGA Tour victory (Phoenix, 2015) to claiming four major titles in 23 months, from a promising but undistinguished start in Europe before returning to his homeland – he didn’t crack the top 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking until winning the 2017 U.S. Open – Koepka’s emergence as a premium performer was as swift as it was unforeseen.
Tiger Woods was supposed to rearrange the furniture. Rory McIlroy was expected to reach stardom at an early age. Koepka never was thought of as an elite player until he became one, and even then, acknowledgement came somewhat begrudgingly. He’d been a very good collegiate player at Florida State, but a world-beater? To say nobody saw Koepka coming is a polite way of saying they never had a reason to look.
“I wasn’t the it kid; I wasn’t the best,” he concedes in a promotional video sponsored by the beer company Koepka represents commercially. “And when you’re not that, I guess you really want to win. You always want to be something you can’t be, right?”
It’s an interesting worldview from a guy who now is the it kid, or was until he injured his left knee at a Tour event in South Korea almost a year ago. Koepka actually had missed the cut as the star attraction of a thin field in Las Vegas two weeks earlier, his first MC in 14½ months. No big deal, but when he returned to action in January and looked nothing like his previous self, then factored just twice after the COVID-19 suspension before ending his season after another MC in North Carolina, the meteor of 2017 had begun to resemble a falling star.
How hurt was/is he? Koepka made it a point to say his knee was fine at various times in 2020, then play poorly and suggest that maybe it wasn’t. Did he return to competition too early and repeatedly aggravate the situation? If so, there is no best-case scenario here. When you’re one of the world’s best golfers, there’s really no such thing as a minor knee injury. It’s a bit like saying someone had a mild heart attack.
Medically speaking, Koepka sustained a partial tear of the patella tendon, shortly after undergoing stem-cell treatment on the same faulty joint. “It’s a lot worse than we led on,” he stated back in January. “I’m nowhere near 100 percent. I don’t know if my knee will ever be 100 percent.”
Six months later, at the Memorial: “Nothing is improved. It’s still the same.”
Lest we forget, before Bryson DeChambeau began showing up at tournaments with a Body by Jake, Koepka was the new era’s definition of a marvelous muscleman. He won those majors with bulging biceps showcased by tight-fitting shirts, owing his success at the biggest gatherings to levels of physical and mental stamina few players could match. Koepka’s conditioning program not only made him stronger, but exponentially more confident when it came to weekends in the heat of battle.
You mess up your knee, everything changes. You can’t work out the same, which erodes one’s self-assuredness, especially when you need it the most. Your technique suffers because your body won’t allow you to move the way you once did. You miss a couple of shots to the left, which Koepka very rarely did until 2020, and any 12-handicap will tell you the damage that can inflict on your psyche.
The real-world assessment of Koepka and his future might look something like this: he’s too injured to perform at his best but not injured enough to undergo a full-blown surgical procedure. Resting the leg hasn’t worked, so we’re looking at a guy with four really cool trophies standing at the crossroads, his career bumping against a certain amount of long-term peril.
To say he’s done winning majors at age 30 would be a reach, but it’s not unreasonable to think it’s within the realm of possibility. Having publicly picked on McIlroy, DeChambeau and Dustin Johnson during his period of prosperity, albeit somewhat playfully, perhaps the golf gods have decided to make an example out of Koepka. In baseball, you’re supposed to circle the diamond with your head down after hitting a home run. In football, it’s not the stupidest idea to simply flip the pigskin to the referee after scoring a touchdown.
Koepka drew a lot of flak for dissing his peers en route to amassing a hall-of-fame career in less than two years. His antics, however serious you considered them, fly in the face of conventional wisdom and don’t exactly adhere to the high road in terms of winning with grace. The big boy walked the walk and talked the talk, but these days, walking isn’t as easy as it used to be.
Only time will tell us whether he’ll ever return to being the player he was until recently; the verdict certainly won’t come from a guy on a computer or some voice behind the microphone. Koepka enters the next phase of his competitive life without the motivation supplied by his never being the it kid. His accomplishments are now enormous, his personal worth defined by some very large numbers.
Can he find the incentive, perseverance and health to augment what he’s already done? Hopefully, we’ll find out at next month’s Masters. You always want to be something you can’t be. It can be much tougher to be the guy you once were.
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