FARMINGDALE, N.Y. — The winds were howling, the skies above Bethpage Black were darkening, and yes, the terminator named Brooks Koepka was showing his human frailty in a most alarming way. He was choking. How does one stop choking when everyone is enjoying the spectacle and nobody is willing to offer first aid?
We’re still in the lead…we’re still in the lead, his caddie, Ricky Elliott, kept telling him. But after four consecutive bogeys on the back nine, what had been a seven-stroke lead — the largest 54-hole lead in PGA Championship history — was down to one with four holes to play and his friend turned enemy, Dustin Johnson, ready to take the Long Island major that Koepka took from him at Shinnecock Hills last year.
“It crept into my mind,” Elliott, from Northern Ireland, said of the possibility that his player was spiraling toward a van de Velde-ian place in sports infamy. “I’m sure it was very much in Brooks’ mind. He was going to make history either way, wasn’t he?”
Koepka admitted he was in shock; he couldn’t recall the last time he made four bogeys in a row, or if he’d ever made four bogeys in a row.
“I’m letting everybody back in,” he kept telling himself.
Koepka was going to star in the mother of all meltdowns on this penal colony of a golf course. He was going to make Greg Norman‘s Shakespearean tragedy at the 1996 Masters feel like nothing more than a good walk spoiled. The winds were gusting at 35 mph, blowing his tee shots all over the lot, turning the back-nine par 4s into par 5s, and turning the par-5 13th, Elliott said, into a no-doubt-about-it par 6.
The caddie reassured his man that Johnson had some difficult holes to play, too, that he couldn’t keep birdieing holes.
“And then he birdied 15,” Elliott said. “I was like, ‘Oh no.'” But still, the caddie could tell Koepka that they had the lead. It was the only thing they had left.
Outside the ropes, the uber-confident father of the uber-confident player, Bob Koepka, looked like he’d seen a ghost.
“It definitely had me worried,” he said.
His son had won three majors in his previous seven starts and had spoken last week of winning 10 or more in his career. Brooks had been described as a beast, a monster, a machine — all dehumanizing terms meant as compliments. And yet suddenly he was bleeding profusely, looking and acting impossibly lost and weak.
Koepka was checking the scoreboards constantly across the back nine, watching his own demise in slow motion. He took some extra time on the 15th tee to try to gather himself. He heard the fans chanting “Dee-Jay, Dee-Jay” on the 14th. Though he felt he deserved it from a New York crowd that smelled blood, it made him stop and unscramble his thoughts.
“I think that was probably the best thing that could have happened,” Koepka said of the chant. He told himself, “OK, all right. I’ve got everybody against me. Let’s go.”
He ripped his ball into the 15th fairway, and watched Johnson miss his putt for par on the 16th , and heard the crowd go ooooh. The most stressful 90 minutes of his career finally started to slow down. Johnson bogeyed the 17th, allowing Koepka to do the same, and by the time the defending champ stood on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead, he felt comfortable using his driver. His ball sailed wide left into trouble, but Koepka chopped out, landed his approach close and sank the par putt that liberated him at last.
Koepka emphatically pumped his fist and gave Elliott the longest, sweetest hug.
“I know for a fact that was the most excited I’ve ever been on my life over there on 18,” he said later.
Koepka had proven he could win with his C-game, just like Tiger did. For Koepka, it always seems to come back to Tiger.
Brooks Koepka reflects on his quick rise to the top of the golf world after repeating at the PGA Champion and obtaining his 4th major victory in only 2 years.
Chris Malloy warned Koepka about Woods about four years ago in Tampa, where Malloy, the former head coach at the University of South Florida, was trying to fire up the professional golfer he had successfully recruited while he was an assistant at Florida State.
As a child, Koepka ordered some mock turtlenecks online after watching Woods wear them at the Masters and beyond. He wanted to be the next Tiger, like millions of young golfers, and Malloy used that dream as a weapon while Woods was rehabbing from one of his injuries.
“You better start winning some tournaments now,” Malloy told Koepka. “What are you going to do when your idol comes back and takes over again?”
Koepka shot his former coach a deadly serious look.
“I’m stronger than Tiger is,” he responded. “I’m longer, I hit it straighter, I have a better short game than he does, and I putt it better. How is Tiger ever going to beat me?”
We interrupt your reminder that Tiger did indeed beat Koepka at the Masters with our own reminder that Koepka beat him at last year’s PGA Championship, and then nuked him at this year’s PGA Championship. That was the heavyweight fight within the heavyweight fight at Bethpage Black. When Koepka defeated Woods by 17 strokes over 36 holes, head to head, the eventual winner actually landed a Deontay Wilder right hand on the entire field.
A year after prevailing at Shinnecock, he was at it again, ascending to the top of the world rankings, and becoming the first man to simultaneously hold back-to-back titles in two majors. Koepka is 29 years old, and he said he sees no reason why he can’t keep muscling his way into history. In fact, Malloy, now the head coach at his alma mater, Ole Miss, believes Koepka is upset that nobody is taking him seriously as a Tiger-like threat to Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major titles.
“I’m stronger than Tiger is. I’m longer, I hit it straighter, I have a better short game than he does, and I putt it better. How is Tiger ever going to beat me?””
Brooks Koepka, according to one of his college coaches, Chris Malloy
“It pisses him off that he isn’t asked that question,” said Malloy, who remains in regular contact with Koepka. “That will make him feel great if you ask him about Jack. … I promise you he absolutely thinks of both Tiger’s (15) majors and Jack’s as targets. That’s not 99 percent, it’s 100 percent. Guaranteed.”
Malloy was the right coach to hear out as this PGA Championship headed to a close. Asked Saturday night how his son had made the transition from a college hothead who often threw and broke clubs to a Cool Hand Luke on tour, Bob Koepka had a simple answer: “Chris Malloy,” he said. The Florida State assistant most responsible for signing Brooks, and for working alongside head coach Trey Jones to tame the raging beast within the young and immature prospect.
On at least 20 occasions, Malloy estimated, the coach hid behind trees and surreptitiously filmed Koepka so he could later show him evidence of his lousy attitude and its impact on his scorecard. Koepka used to respond to poor shots at college events by cursing himself, or by flinging his bag back onto his shoulder and dragging his club and slamming it into the ground. Malloy instituted a rule that required Koepka to put his club back in his bag within five seconds — or else. When Brooks violated the rule, Malloy made him run the steps at Doak Campbell Stadium. Koepka became as familiar with that stadium as Seminoles legends Deion Sanders and Charlie Ward.
“You run five or six stadiums and you’re going to throw up, and Brooks threw up like clockwork,” Malloy said. “He was the toughest player I ever had to change. He had arguably the worst temper, and he was so hard on himself. He was the furthest person from what you see today. He definitely would not have won any majors if he had the same temperament today that he had then.
“If he acted like an ass and you told him to run 10 stadiums, he wouldn’t care as much. He started thinking of it as an extra workout. He was like, ‘That’s my cardio.’ It wasn’t until we made it a team penalty, and made everybody run, that it started to affect him. Brooks didn’t want to hurt his teammates.”
Ranked No. 1 in the country as a sophomore in 2010, Koepka nearly hurt them to an unforgivable degree during the Seminole Intercollegiate, where Florida State held a huge lead over South Carolina. He whistled a tee shot out of bounds that cost him the individual title, lost his focus and then disqualified himself by signing an incorrect scorecard. Forced to replace Koepka’s score with that of a freshman’s, the Seminoles were docked nine strokes and barely beat South Carolina by one.
“That was his defining moment, the turning point,” Malloy said. “He was scared sh–less that he almost cost his team the title.”
The coach credited Koepka for taking it from there. Brooks never needed a hug, or an arm wrapped around his shoulder for reassurance. He never complained to his parents about the way he was being coached at Florida State.
“He likes direct honesty,” Malloy said. “He loves tough love. Everything you see is a learned behavior, and that’s really hard to do. I think it’s a great story for junior golf. Kids see Brooks now and think he’s a robot out there with no emotion, but that wasn’t his nature.”
Koepka would refine his game the hard way overseas. He learned a little bit about grit from his friend, Graeme McDowell, and later, back in the States, he learned a little bit about poise from his friend, D.J. Koepka proved he could win the U.S. Open in a runaway at Erin Hills, and then proved he could win ugly at Shinnecock Hills, too. Before arriving at Bethpage, he’d proved he could win a PGA by holding off arguably the greatest player who ever lived.
Woods made his spirited charge at Bellerive a year ago and Koepka never blinked. That triumph, and the near-miss last month at Augusta National, inspired Koepka to say that he didn’t see any reason why he “can’t get to double digits” in career major titles.
“He just sat at the end of the table pretty quiet, and he says, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And they said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, who’s going to do it?’ And he just raised his hand.”
Bob Koepka, on his son’s response when a potential equipment sponsor suggested a different tour player might win eight to 10 majors.
His blind faith surprised nobody in the Koepka camp. As a sixth grader in Lake Worth, Fla. who made his high school team, Brooks announced to his father during a ride home from a tournament that he would drop out of school in four years and turn pro. Bob Koepka immediately pulled over and let his boy know that he would be finishing high school and attending college whether he liked it or not.
Years later, before he won his first U.S. Open, a grown Brooks was meeting with representatives of a large equipment manufacturer when one predicted that a certain player was destined to win eight to 10 majors.
“He just sat at the end of the table pretty quiet,” Bob Koepka recalled of his son, “and he says, ‘That’s not going to happen.’ And they said, ‘Well, if that’s the case, who’s going to do it?’ And he just raised his hand.” The senior Koepka wouldn’t identify the player his son dismissed other than to say he’s still on tour and still winless in the majors.
Two days before he teed it up with Woods at Bethpage, Brooks Koepka explained why there was no reason to fear Tiger in the octagon of a non-contact sport. (“He’s not going to knock my teeth in,” said the eventual champ.) And then the former high school star who was recruited by only a small handful of Division I schools went out, Bob Koepka said, “and kinda turned the table on Tiger. Tiger was seeing what he used to do to everybody else. … I think he kinda witnessed Tiger back in 2000.”
Malloy shook his head as he watched from afar. He recalled Koepka as a scrawny recruit whose shoulders were the width of a linebacker’s, suggesting his frame would ultimately fill out. The Florida State coaches knew all about Brooks’ raw athleticism. They knew his shots looked and sounded different from everyone else’s.
Nothing much has changed about that. On Sunday, after maintaining he had no doubt he would prevail, Koepka lost six shots on his seven-shot lead and then held on for dear life. At the champion’s ceremony on the 18th green, Koepka leaned forward, wrapped his arms around that big, shiny trophy, and dramatically exhaled before smiling and shaking his head.
His most satisfying victory complete, Koepka left Bethpage Black with the one question that will hang over major championship golf for the foreseeable future.
How is Tiger, or anyone else, ever going to beat him?