Just 3 weeks after surgery on right kneecap, Koepka arrives at Augusta, ready to resume quest for major titles, but is it too soon?
And there was Brooks Koepka, cutting a tall, broad and totally unexpected figure on the range at Augusta National on the Sunday before the Masters. A short 19 days after some serious knee surgery, Koepka was attempting the highly improbable, at the very least. He fully intends to start the Masters on Thursday and complete it on Sunday.
“If I knew I was going to finish second,” he said, “I wouldn't have shown up.”
Could a sense of urgency be driving Koepka? A nagging 3 a.m. voice in his head that makes him wonder whether the prime of his golf career is about to pass him unless he gets back to the top of the game and makes the kind of noise that got him noticed in the first place?
He has slipped to No. 12 in the world, which might be part of the answer to the question: Has Koepka lost his mind? Or, is he a modern medical miracle?
Besides, Tiger Woods won the 2008 U.S. Open on one leg, didn’t he?
In early March, Koepka slipped and fell, dislocating his right kneecap, which he popped back into place. He had surgery on March 16 to repair the kneecap and the patellar tendons. Seven days later, he was hitting a few balls on the range.
“I don't think anybody expected this. I didn't know,” he said. “The goal was to play Augusta, and so we were going to see if we could play. ... We were hopeful we were going to be here. A couple of bad days or anything like that, it could set you back quite a while.”
The 30-year-old Koepka has been a one-man ER during the past couple of years, replacing Jason Day as the player injured most often on the PGA Tour. An injured left wrist caused him to miss the 2018 Masters. A slip at the 2019 C.J. Cup in South Korea injured his left knee, and he was out for three months, undergoing a number of stem-cell treatments on the knee. Lingering issues with the knee and a torn labrum in his left hip, caused by compensating for the knee in his swing, caused him to pull out of the 2020 U.S. Open. And at the WGC Workday Championship, where he was runner-up, he was hampered by a stiff neck.
Koepka said that in preparation for the Masters, he underwent seven hours or more of rehab a day. This for a man who remarkably captured four major championships – winning two of the majors back-to-back – in 23 months. He won the U.S. Open in 2017 and 2018 and the PGA Championship in 2018 and 2019. He was No. 1 in the Official World Golf Ranking for a total of 47 weeks.
Koepka hadn’t won a tournament since July 2019, at the WGC FedEx St. Jude, and the 2020 season was mostly a washout. An improbable chip-in for eagle at the 71st hole of the Waste Management Phoenix Open in February gave him his eighth PGA Tour title.
Afterward, he conceded that his mind had gone to some unhealthy places. “There was a period maybe for about two months where I just questioned whether I was ever going to be the same, whether I was even going to be somewhat remotely the same golfer that I ever was,” Koepka said. “My knee, no matter how much work and pain I was doing with Derek [Samuel], my trainer, it just felt like it wasn't progressing. And that's the frustrating part, when you feel like it's not going anywhere.
“But we stuck with it. Those dark places, a lot of tears, questioning yourself, and in dark places mentally. I'll tell you what, it takes a lot of effort just to get out of those places.”
Koepka’s public persona is pretty dark, anyway. In the past, he has been dismissive of non-major tournaments as not being worth preparing very strenuously. He finished T-7 at last year’s Masters and dismissively, said, “Whoo, seventh.”
He thinks he’s vastly underappreciated, and he possesses a Patrick Reed-like ability to hold a grudge and a Michael Jordan-like ability to use it as motivation. Koepka even adopted a hard line against Dustin Johnson, who’s supposed to be a friend and workout partner, before the final round of the PGA Championship in August. Johnson led after 54 holes, and Koepka was two shots behind.
“A lot of the guys on the leaderboard, I don’t think have won [a major championship],” Koepka said at the time. “I guess D.J.; he’s only won one. I don’t know a lot of the other guys up there.” The shot across the bow backfired as Koepka shot 4-over 74 in the final round to Johnson’s 68 at TPC Harding Park. Collin Morikawa shot 64 to win his first major title.
Now that it’s time for the Masters to begin, Koepka is champing at the bit, even if it’s with jaws clenched in pain.
“I’ve walked enough miles,” he said. “We’ve been building up for this. Now it’s about managing the hills and finding the flattest parts.”
Koepka said after nine holes of practice Tuesday that downhill is the toughest walk and that shots with the ball above his feet will cause the most problems. In fact, he has decided to hit 3-wood off the tee at the par-5 13th, to avoid a second shot that would be physically awkward.
And that’s not all. He can’t bend down normally to mark his ball on the greens or line up his putts. He did three hours of rehab Tuesday morning to be able to play nine holes later in the day, and he did more that night. He didn’t finish his Monday rehab until 12:30 a.m. He’s concerned most about swelling, which could cause the biggest problems.
“I gotta do it,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “No other option, is there?”
Actually, there is. The Masters will be played next year. One week of a potentially dangerous decision could bring down a career’s worth of consequences.
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