With Two U.S. Opens in His Bag, Brooks Koepka Still Wants to Be the Underdog
This story appears in the July 2, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine — and get up to 87 percent off the cover price plus two FREE gifts. Click here for more.
The night of the opening round of the 2018 U.S. Open, Brooks Koepka counted the people counting him out. The defending champion, he was watching from the living room of his rental house in Southampton, N.Y., as the Golf Channel flashed through the leaderboard—at five over par, Koepka was tied for 46th—and then showed a graphic of "notable" players, in this order: Dustin Johnson, Justin Thomas, Justin Rose, Jordan Spieth, Jon Rahm, Rory McIlroy, Rickie Fowler, Jason Day, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson. No Brooks Koepka.
The forgotten man seethed. "I just won the event, top 10 in the world, and there's 10 guys on that list, and not one of them is me," he says.
Koepka collects slights the way he once collected Pokémon cards. He catches them all: He dreamed of attending Florida, but the Gators did not recruit him; he went instead to Florida State. He was never invited to play in the Walker Cup as an amateur. He did not make the 2015 Presidents Cup team on points and did not get selected as a captain's pick, despite having eight top 10 finishes that year. After an injury to Jim Furyk opened another slot, he was not selected—again. When he missed four months of this season while recovering from a partially torn tendon in his left wrist, he noted how many Tour players reached out to him (three: Johnson, Mickelson and Bubba Watson). A fan approached Koepka at the Players Championship in May and asked for a photo. He was preparing to smile when she handed him her phone. Could he snap a shot of her with Johnson—Koepka's best friend in golf and the world No. 1? "It happens all the time," Koepka says. "I honestly just want to take a selfie sometimes."
Even when fans remember him, it seems they can't quite get his name right. He has heard Kowpka, Keka, Kopeeka. The announcer at the first tee of the 2015 Phoenix Open—which Koepka would go on to win—called him Brooks Cupcake. At the winner's press conference after the '17 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Wisconsin, a USGA official introduced him as Bruce. He has also been confused for Day and Tony Finau. Since his first Open win, "I've gotten less Tonys, more Jasons," he says. As the trophy engraver got to work on the Open trophy last June, Koepka watched carefully. "O before E," he said. He offered no such guidance after winning his second consecutive Open, at Shinnecock Hills. "It was pretty easy," he says with a smile. "All he had to do was look up."
Most of the PGA Tour is doing the same. The Open win vaulted Koepka to fourth in the World Ranking and 13th in FedExCup standings. He has won more majors than anyone ahead of him except Watson (3rd) and Mickelson (8th). At 28, Brooks Koepka is now officially notable. But if you have built your entire self-image on being an underdog, what do you do when you become a favorite?
Koepka is rubbing his eyes as he sits at a table in the caddie shack at the Travelers Championship, just south of Hartford on June 21. It has been approximately 91 hours since he became the first player in three decades to win consecutive U.S. Opens (Curtis Strange in 1989 was the last), and although he has spent close to half that time asleep, he can barely summon the energy to sit up. He did not leave Shinnecock until more than four hours after he holed out on number 18; he wolfed down some pizza, closed his eyes for a few hours, then boarded a flight home to Jupiter, Fla. He greeted his mom, Denise Jakows, who waited for his 4:30 p.m. arrival to congratulate him, then he made it as far as his living room couch before he passed out. The next thing he remembers is the sliding glass door opening as Johnson, having driven over on his boat, let himself in. "Yo," Johnson said. "Whatcha doing?" It was 8 p.m.
Most players in Koepka's position would have spent the week after winning a major by heading to New York City or Los Angeles, weathering press conferences, sitting alongside Jimmy Kimmel or Jimmy Fallon and finalizing endorsement deals. Mickelson, who had stirred up controversy by swatting a moving putt during the third round, finished tied for 48th, and by Wednesday his team had issued two press releases about new investment projects. Strange says the biggest adjustment he had to make after his back-to-back victories was the attention. "It's not making a five-foot putt," he says. "That's the same. It's the demands on your time."
Koepka likes to roll up to public courses, carrying a generic bag. Even his monstrous drives (he's 23rd in driving distance on Tour) draw little notice there. For all his talk of being overlooked, Koepka also cherishes his anonymity. He skipped the Travelers pro-am and the practice round on the Wednesday before the tournament so he could catch up on sleep. He did head to the range that night—and not just to hit balls. "It's about getting the handshakes out of the way," he says. "If you [don't] do that, you get distracted in the morning. You're trying to get focused, and people are like, 'Hey, how's it going? Congratulations.'"
No one predicted Koepka's success—except him. Dan Gambill, his best friend, thought Koepka could be a good college golfer. Koepka's father, Bob, hoped his son could play well enough on the pro circuit to occasionally get invited to tournaments. Brooks, though, believed he would dominate the PGA Tour. After college he tried to get his Tour card through qualifying school but failed by three strokes. Spieth, who likewise didn't make it out of Q school, used sponsor exemptions to forge a path on the Web.com Tour; Koepka went to the Challenge Tour, the minor leagues in Europe. He ate horsemeat in Kazakhstan and swam with sharks in South Africa. He also slept four to a bedroom on the road and carried his own bag until his father and stepmother footed the bill for a caddie. Eventually he won enough to make the European tour and then to come home, but he had loved the grind, toiling abroad, imagining life in the spotlight.
Koepka grew up in West Palm Beach, Fla., hoping to play pro baseball or hockey. Standing 6 feet and at 186 pounds, he sees himself as an athlete first and a golfer second. He is, in the words of his strength coach, Joey Diovisalvi, "about as far from Bryson DeChambeau as anyone on earth." Which is to say that Koepka is far from a golf nerd. He works with his team—in addition to Diovisalvi, that includes swing coach Claude Harmon III, short game coach Pete Cowen and caddie Ricky Elliott—to determine a strategy, then buys in fully. He does not carry a yardage book. He asks Elliott only for a yardage number and where to hit the ball. This year Koepka finally bought the high-tech TrackMan swing analysis system that has been popular with pros for nearly a decade, but his mostly collects dust. He rarely watches golf on TV. He did not learn that Strange was the last man to accomplish the Open repeat until he noticed it when he looked at his trophy at home.
Koepka was incredulous to learn that no one valued his first Open win as much as he did. He had won a major—more than Fowler or Rahm could say—but because he'd done it on the forgiving fairways of Erin Hills and shot 16 under par, somehow that meant it didn't count? "What the hell can I do?" he says now. "It's the course they gave us." So the victory at challenging Shinnecock meant more. He played the final round paired with Johnson and shot one over for the tournament on a course so tough that the USGA held a press conference to explain. No one can say Koepka didn't win on a U.S. Open-caliber course.
He's come a long way since his low point, a few days before he arrived at Erin Hills. "He was questioning himself," says Cowen. The Tuesday before the Open, Koepka and Elliott sat on the chipping green as Cowen yelled at them, wagging his finger. Graeme McDowell, another Cowen protégé, drove by and recognized the gesture. "I've had that speech many times," he says. "It's like having a lesson off your headmaster."
"You're gonna win nothing with that sort of attitude," Cowen bellowed. "You'll be a mediocre player for the rest of your life!"
Koepka absorbed the browbeating and said, "O.K."
"Sometimes you just need to be put in your place, I think," Koepka says now. "Golf's weird because it's individual and there's nobody to blame but yourself, but then golfers also have this it's-everybody-else's-fault thing where you don't take ownership. He was like, 'You're not going to win, ever. You're never going to win.' You tell me I can't do something, I'm going to do it."
Cowen issued a similar challenge to Koepka this year, and he devoured it. He never has to stop playing like an underdog if he never stops believing he is one. He plays this brilliantly: He eschews talk shows and Instagram, then grouses that no one pays attention to him. This is ridiculous, of course; Koepka is among the most feared players on Tour. He knows that. He just tells himself he is still the kid waiting for college offers that never came.
"You could say I put the chip on [my own shoulder]," he says. "Sometimes you have to find new ways to play games with yourself." As his star keeps burning, his challenge will be to keep his flame hot. Occasionally that may mean manufacturing insults. Koepka grows animated discussing that notables list from Day 1 of the tournament—it annoyed him so much he snapped a photo of the screen—but he does not mention that the Golf Channel displayed three other graphics of prominent players that night. Even from 46th place, he was featured on two of them.