Brooks Koepka uses negativity to focus on winning tournaments
By Tod Leonard
May 20, 2019 | 7:25 PM
Don’t be a hater.
If there was something to be learned from Brooks Koepka’s dominating and then nerve-jangling victory in the PGA Championship, it is that we should step back, put away our biases, and appreciate the history we are seeing.
Koepka is never going to be as eloquent in sharing his thoughts as Rory McIlroy. He doesn’t possess Jason Day’s candor or Jordan Spieth’s entertaining nervous chatter.
Koepka is never going to smile just because we want him to. It seems that only looking into his reflection in a trophy can do that. The man, still a golfing pup who only turned 29 this month, is evolving in the public eye while becoming one of the game’s most intriguing characters.
The PGA Championship victory at Bethpage Black was his fourth major win in 23 months. A second straight victory in the PGA followed the repeat last June in the U.S. Open — a feat that only Curtis Strange had accomplished in 66 years.
At Bethpage last week, Koepka annihilated the field for the first three rounds. He shot 63-65 to open, and at one point got to a 13-under total on a track that ultimately yielded only six final scores in red numbers
Koepka was robotic until he wasn’t, nearly losing all of his seven-shot lead and facing the biggest collapse in PGA Tour history.
The fickle New York crowd — they cheered for "Brooksy" as a hero in earlier rounds — smelled blood, and many tried to get in his head with chants for his closest pursuer, Dustin Johnson. There were some questionable, abrupt bursts of sound in his downswing.
With par on three of his last four holes, while Johnson was making two bogeys, Koepka overcame more than the guys who were playing inside the ropes. Other players would have whined. He shrugged off the “choke” cheers as a motivator.
Still, deep down, it’s got to hurt a little bit. What more does he have to do?
Koepka seems to be finding his voice, and he’s worth listening to.
During a February radio appearance, Koepka pointedly criticized some of his tour brethren for their “embarrassing” slow play. And he recently got into a Twitter feud with the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee. During the Masters, the commentator wondered if Koepka had gone soft by losing weight to pose for a magazine photo shoot.
Koepka responded by posting photos of Chamblee with a clown nose.
Asked on Sunday night when he has felt most disrespected, Koepka bowed and said with some heat in his eyes, “Telling me I wasn’t tough. That pissed me off.”
Anger and resentment seem to fuel him. Graeme McDowell, the Irishman whom Koepka has credited with giving him insight into how to focus in majors, said on Sunday, “You can’t teach somebody to think the way Brooks Koepka thinks. I wish I could think that way — use negativity the way he’s able to use it.
“He just drives himself to another level. Tiger was very different from that. He didn’t seem to need negativity. He could go to a different place, mentally, than the rest of us could go to. But Brooks gets himself there via little chips, via negative comments he gets from people, and he’s able to take himself to places we’ve only seen from guys like Tiger.”
Comparisons to Woods are beginning to flow and the first instinct is to scoff, because no previous potential heirs have come close to Woods' consistent greatness.
Koepka has won only a pair of PGA Tour events to go with his four majors. Before he reached 30, Woods seized 10 majors and 46 tour wins.
Still, there are few players in the game more confident than Koepka when they step up to the first tee of a major. That Koepka matter-of-factly said before the PGA that he sees himself reaching double digits in major wins was audacious, but no one is in a position to argue.
Standing near the Bethpage clubhouse on Sunday, waiting for his son to sign his scorecard and head to the trophy ceremony, Bob Koepka intimated that Brooks had spoken of his goals for major wins in the company of his close circle, but hadn’t gone public with the thought until last week.
“I think putting it out there makes him focus that much harder on trying to get there,” Bob Koepka said. “Everyone is saying that it’s not going to happen. That’s motivation for him to prove everybody wrong.”
The underdog attitude, the father said, came when Brooks didn’t set the Florida junior golf circuit on fire, never getting a win. He was an outsider when he reached the larger American Junior Golf Association tour and wasn’t heavily recruited in high school before going to Florida State.
Brooks Koepka ultimately made it to the tour the hard way, heading over to the second-tier European Challenge Tour before making his way onto the PGA Tour in 2015.
“I don’t know that there are words,” Bob Koepka said of the journey. “Brooks put a ton of work in. We all made sacrifices to get him to where he’s at. It’s starting to hit me now. Back-to-back PGAs and U.S. Opens — nobody’s done that.”
Bob Koepka laughingly recalled the glory days of Woods, when the odds and office pools for majors were always skewed toward one guy.
“It wasn’t fair!” Koepka said.
Now his son is becoming that guy.
“I think now he’s put himself on the map to be talked about as one of the top players,” Bob Koepka said. “He definitely should be the favorite of every major coming up, based on his track record.”
The chance for a U.S. Open three-peat — done only once, by Willie Anderson in the early 1900s — comes in less than a month at Pebble Beach.
Koepka has only played once in the AT&T at Pebble, but fared well in 2016, trying for eighth. He has never played much on the West Coast — he missed the cut in his only start at Torrey Pines in 2016 — and has made it clear that putting on poa annua grass greens is not his strength, though he did just fine on them at Bethpage.
The British Open in July will be played in Northern Ireland at Royal Portrush, and Koepka’s caddie, Ricky Elliott, grew up nearly across the street from the course.
“He should know where to hit it,” Koepka said. “I’m excited to get over there.”
In the postscript to the 101st PGA, there is one more thing to be noted of Koepka and his week at Bethpage. As he walked the course each day, laser-focused on his work, fans leaned heavily on the ropes, forming a tight labyrinth of arms.
Most players duck their head and zip right through. Koepka invariably obliged them, slapping hands on both sides of the aisle.
In the aftermath, the smiles on kids’ faces were priceless. He truly was a people’s champion at “The People’s Country Club.”