NEW YORK—Brooks Koepka looked beat. The gait he displays inside the ropes, so brash and buoyant, was nowhere to be found. He plodded his way through a tight corridor in a New York City high-rise on Wednesday, decanting himself into a chair as if he’d just run a marathon. Which, in a sense, he had, his last day filled with a 14-hour flight, basketball game, presidential meeting and countless media obligations. Even for the most indefatigable of athletes—which Koepka has proven himself to be—that schedule will do a number on your tank.
But it’s a schedule that reflects his newfound celebrity. Notoriety that, while he’s not quite comfortable with, Koepka is learning to handle. Heck, even enjoy.
“It’s been all good,” Koepka said inside a SiriusXM office, on a promotional tour for the upcoming PGA Championship down the Long Island Expressway at Bethpage Black. “You can use it in a positive light and probably help change people’s lives if you can. And any time you go somewhere, obviously you’re a little bit more recognized, which is nice. You get to meet people, meet fans, engage with them, and that’s part of the fun.”
Fun. There have been many words written about Koepka over the last 18 months, a period where the 28-year-old has transformed from fledgling talent into full-blown superstar. Fun hasn’t been one of them, blinded by another topic: respect. Specifically, a lack thereof, a sentiment that’s fueled his drive to capture three majors in his last six tries. And make no mistake, they do fuel him. Koepka lists his slights—the 2015 Presidents Cup snub, a Golf Channel rebuff during last year’s U.S. Open, a horse making a “most dominant performers” ranking over him—as if he keeps a rolodex of each.
He isn’t the first athlete to use contempt, perceived or otherwise, as motivation, but he’s made it his mission statement. A drum he’s beat maybe too hard the past year, as it’s become the overriding, arguably only, story when it comes to Brooks Koepka.
“I think the respect thing is—I don’t want to say blown out of proportion, that I feel like I haven’t gotten the respect I deserve,” Kopeka said. “The point I was trying to make was just I think if other people had done it, I think it would be a lot different.
“At times it’s frustrating, but I also understand it, and I’ve just tried to get on with it because at the end of the day, when I’m sitting there with three major championship trophies, that’s enough.”
Though that’s easier said than done—prior to his roundtable discussion, Koepka said if certain players had done what he did in 2018, “Their face would be on a dollar bill”—he’s getting there. He doesn’t want the disrespect narrative to define him. He knows he can be more, wants to be more, needs to be more.
There’s no template for dealing with fame, and Koepka admitted that he hasn’t done his part in building a rapport with fans. Perhaps that’s why he’s been more outspoken as of late, showing there’s a thoughtful mind behind those muscles. He aired his frustrations with slow play last week and doubled down on the perspective Wednesday on a New York radio show. He’s become one of the few marquee names to weigh in on the game’s heated distance debate.
“If they roll the golf ball back, it’s just going to make the longer hitters even longer,” Koepka said. “There’s going to be more of a separation from the long hitters to short hitters. Guys that hit it 270 are going to hit it 240. Guys that hit it long are still going to hit it 300. It really doesn’t matter. It’s really going to affect guys that don’t hit it long, and there won’t be any guys—if they change the ball, you won’t see any short hitters on tour.”
Most surprisingly, Koepka asserted a rediscovered affinity for the sport. You see, the biggest barrier between Koepka and universal acceptance from galleries is the notion that Koepka isn’t a golf nut. He once told Golf Digest that he sees the game as a profession, not passion. “Golf is kind of boring, not much action,” he said. Considering golf, more than its sporting brethren, generates a zealous following, that doesn’t play well with its audience.
But Koepka has changed his tune, and points to this time early last year, when he was sidelined with a wrist injury that kept him out of the Masters, that reignited the fire.
“I’ve fallen back in love with it, and that’s the only way I can really put words to it,” Koepka said. “When something is taken away from you that you love so much, and at the time maybe didn’t really know how much I loved it, but when everything is pulled away from you and I’m sitting on the couch and—not depressed, but not happy, not in a good place—I never knew when I was going to be able to come back.”
The four-month sabbatical was cathartic, a necessary medicine. It put him on his current career track, one that has no ceiling in sight.
“I didn’t know if I was going to have to change everything, was I still going to be the same player, was I going to be just happy to be making my tour card every year. I didn’t know what expectations were going to be,” Koepka said. ”I didn’t know whether I was going to be the same me, and that’s scary. But to come back and the first couple times be like, ‘OK, wow, I can still do this, I’m still the same me,’ there’s nobody more excited to be playing golf than me.”
That gusto has spread to other aspects of his life. Although he maintains discipline in his game, preparation and diet during a tournament week, Koepka’s making an effort to tap into his adventurous side, one that was fed during his burgeoning years in Europe. On Tuesday, he met with the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks, and an encounter with All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo led to a viral moment, with the 6’11” All-Star making Brooks look like Brian Harman. “I’ve never felt smaller,” Koepka laughed. “I didn’t even reach his shoulders. I felt kind of embarrassed.”
Koepka also spent time with former President Bill Clinton, watching the game together in courtside seats. “I think he said it was going to take him two drives to wherever I hit it, but yeah, we talked about maybe playing golf in the near future, and that would be exciting,” Koepka said. “I think that’s truly an honor, and the fact that he wants to play golf with me is pretty cool.”
Koepka has never been rude, off-putting or crass. Yet he’s always been on edge, a disposition that’s led to a lone-wolf reputation on a circuit famously sociable. Those walls appear to be lowering, ever so slightly, that edge softened with a sense of appreciation.
“You look at Sunday [at the PGA], that’s what I dreamed of when I was a kid, going down with [Adam Scott] and Tiger Woods, my two guys I looked up to ever since I started the game,” he said. “Those are the guys that I wanted to play with. I’d say to myself, this putt was to beat Adam and Tiger, and to actually do it in real life, I don’t even think I thought it was going to come true.”
Who needs acclaim when you’re living out your dream?
Minutes later, Koepka was informed he was needed elsewhere. And with that, he lifted himself, nodded and lumbered out. Or maybe it was more of a stroll, the walk of someone without a care in the world. Because Brooks Koepka, the man who continually asked when he would get his, has discovered he already has it.