By Dave Kindred
PEBBLE BEACH — It was Aug. 8, 2014. Fewer than five years ago. Even then, Brooks Koepka was sure of himself. Not that anyone much knew it. He was an oddity, a young American, 24, who’d chosen to play the European Tour, winning four times in two seasons, a sensational run that went mostly unnoticed here. That day in Louisville, after two rounds of the PGA Championship, he stood by the players’ locker room out of the rain and wondered aloud to a couple hanging-around reporters if he might make the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
“Captain’s picks, you could,” somebody said. In three weeks, Tom Watson would add three players of his choosing.
“Why not?” Koepka said, more to himself than to us, more a possibility than a boast, because he knew, as we all knew, that Watson wouldn’t pick a no-name kid who’d played only a dozen times on the PGA Tour. A T-3 on a sponsor’s exemption in a Frys.com Open isn’t Ryder Cup stuff, and even a T-4 in that summer’s U.S. Open could be dismissed as a moment unlikely to be repeated.
Passing on Koepka, Watson made his captain’s picks a pair of major championship winners, Keegan Bradley and Webb Simpson, along with Hunter Mahan.
Whatever great sense those choices made, that was then and this is now—and now Brooks Koepka, still sure of himself, is on an immortal’s roll—four majors in three years with a third straight U.S. Open for the taking this week.
There’s no doubt he’s reaching for it. A Rickie Fowler, who has never won a major, can say, “Whether I win a major or don’t, that’s not going to define me.” What he does off the course, how he changes lives, that’s what matters: “There are a lot of other things I’d love to be remembered by.”
Or a Rory McIlroy, with four majors, can say his wife and parents will still love him, four majors or a dozen: “I’ll be the same person.”
And what does Brooks Koepka say about this Open? “This would be the coolest thing,” he said, “to win three in a row and to win a third one at Pebble.”
He started today at 1:47 p.m. An hour and a half later, he had birdied four of the first six holes and was one shot off the lead. He isn’t hiding from the task. Nor is he content with only reaching. He’s grabbing history by the throat. His last eight majors: Win, T-6, T-13, Win, T-39, Win, T-2, Win.
At day’s end this time, Koepka settled for a two-under 69, four shots behind the leader, Justin Rose. Though he lost two shots late—missing short birdie putts coming in, a five-footer at the 15th and a three-footer at the 18th—Koepka pronounced himself “quite pleased.”
He drove erratically. “I don’t know how many fairways I hit from 8 on in. I didn’t hit many. And l didn’t hit many greens. … I had a good chance at 15, but sometimes those greens are so slopey, and you’ve got a four-footer and you’re playing it with what feels like two feet of break. It’s going to happen.”
The only fright of Koepka’s day came at the 18th when his drive, far right, might have hit a cart path and bounded over a hedge, out of bounds. Instead, it fell just short and came to rest on the cinder-based cart path—and he played his second off the path.
“I didn’t drop it,” he said, “because the ball would have been on a downhill slope and my feet would be on the cart path. … It seemed easier to put it in the fairway from where it was lying.” From the fairway, he then put it to three feet, only to miss the putt.
“Considering how I hit it coming in,” he said, “I’m pretty pleased, two under. I didn’t shoot myself out of it. I’m right there. I feel like if I get off tomorrow, get off to a good start, I’m right back into it.”
And who would have imagined that five years ago? After earning his PGA Tour card in ’14—with two top-10 finishes and prize money more than $1 million—Koepka won his first PGA event in the first month of the next year. Though he didn’t win again until ’17, Koepka achieved the distinction he suggested on that rainy day in Louisville. No captain’s pick this time, he played his way onto the 2016 Ryder Cup team. He won three of four matches and helped the U.S. to a 17-11 victory over the Europeans.
So much has happened so quickly for the kid, now a man, then unknown, now a star reaching for greatness.