The mean age for winning majors is 32 years, 143 days. Brooks Koepka does not turn 33 until May. He is thus still in the sweet spot and inclined at next week’s opening major of the season, the Masters, to remind the world of a talent that had the game by the throat before injury first struck in 2019.
He feels a little under golfed, this weekend’s LIV golf event in Orlando only the third of the season, but is injury free, the blight of torn patella tendons in both legs and a smashed right knee cap behind him. Koepka could barely stand a year ago when he chose to compete at Augusta just three weeks after surgery. It was a mistake. The missed cut that followed triggered a negative spiral that ultimately attracted the attention of the Netflix cameras, trained as they are on melodrama. The unique despair associated with professional injury was painfully captured.
Koepka revealed in “Full Swing” a vulnerability unrecognisable from the swaggering Spartan who scattered fields when harvesting four majors in two years from 2017. “I was just authentically myself. I’m going to give you what I’m thinking, what I’m feeling at any one time. Most people catch me on the golf course. That is a completely different side of me,” Koepka tells i from his home in Florida.
“My competitiveness probably got the best of me, wanting to play and prove everybody wrong, prove to myself that I was okay. I can’t help myself. The surgery I had had never been done before. They pretty much told me recovery would be a year and a half. Three weeks later we were playing Augusta. I was just trying to figure out what routes to walk there. I couldn’t get down to read putts without kicking my right leg out.
“I’ve played this game for 28 years. I’m used to swinging a certain way. The perception of where you think you are at and the reality of where you really are is so different. I don’t have many swing thoughts. I just swing it how I feel it and just know it’s going to be pretty much in the same spot every time. But when you can’t get to those positions it’s tough. The coach is like ‘we need you back here’, but I can’t get there, that amounts to a lot of frustration.
“You then get into bad habits, try to break those habits but you are still hurt, still not 100 per cent. For anybody who gets injured there is a lot going on behind the scenes. You can get into a dark place when you are just by yourself. It wears on you when you can’t do the one thing you have been doing your entire life.”
Three months later Koepka was a LIV golfer, persuaded by a sum rumoured to be $100m (£81m). Since only Tiger Woods has earned more than that colossal figure in career prize money, $121m, you can see the appeal of leaving the PGA Tour. Koepka was honest about his motives, especially when he believed his career was at risk, a view he expressed to his coach Claude Harmon when the pair resumed their relationship in the post-Masters slump.
Nine months after the LIV launch at St Albans the nuclear bitterness between the factions is morphing into acceptance. The PGA Tour has mortgaged itself to the point of lunacy to get close to prize fund parity and is holding steady for now. And the moral outrage over the Saudi-backed venture has lost much of its force in light of the myriad ways Saudi investments connect globally to a complex economic picture. Indeed the new duality has created a special tension around the majors, which will see the best players in the world convene on the same pitch just four times a year.
For his part Koepka has no ill will towards the old order. Why would he? His game is returning and he is invested in the new world in a way the old would never allow. “I still love the PGA Tour. I’ve got nothing against them. A lot of guys I see on a daily basis around Jupiter still play on the PGA Tour. I have nothing against them. I have nothing against Jay [Monahan, PGA Tour commissioner]. It’s just competition, right? We are just trying to put up the best model we can, the best golf and then it’s up to the fans. We want people to watch and come to the events. We want to put on a show for everybody.”
Apart from the money, there is a sense among the LIV players that they are valued in a way they were not by the PGA Tour, where individualism is a prime mover and the words “independent contractor” echo religiously about the parish. The sense of belonging at LIV is expressed via the team mechanism, a concept that gives the players part ownership of the product and which Koepka has enthusiastically embraced.
“The closest thing we have to it in golf is college golf. In our team Matt Wolff and my brother [Chase] bring it up a lot. Myself and Jason [Kokrak] are a little further removed in age. If you take Matt for example this has kind of rejuvenated him, made him feel that he is truly part of something that is bigger than himself. That is how I interpret it anyway. If you go down the range, especially the captains, from Dustin [Johnson] to Sergio [Garcia], Bryson [DeChambeau], Phil [Mickelson], everyone has a smile on their face.
“And speaking personally the business side of it has been really cool, a neat experience. It’s been cool to put on a different hat other than being just Brooks the golfer. Everybody is truly excited. People can be a fan of me but [in the future] they are always going to be a fan of team Smash. That is what LIV creates and that’s the difference.”
It’s not all perfect, of course. Koepka would like to see the season restructured to allow, for example, more events earlier. “Being honest, I wish there was more front loading to get ready for Augusta, but that’s part of the learning curve. This is all so new. LIV have done a phenomenal job just listening to the players, what we want, what we need. That’s been the cool part of the process. The transparency. This is the first full season. I’m very pleased with it.”
After Orlando it is a short hop across the Georgia state line to Augusta and the Masters, a tournament that sees itself as the summit of the game and which is host to the opposing forces for the first time since the LIV schism struck. The majesty of the setting is at odds with ugly undercurrents that have been tearing at the sport’s fabric. If there is one golfer built to cope with this environment it is a fully restored Koepka, chest out, eyes front, aim true. “It’s tough right now because it is divided. But the cool part of this is the four times a year we are all going to be together. That puts a little more emphasis on the majors, a little more sauce. I’m super excited for it.
“Augusta is Augusta, and for the first time in two years I’m actually ready to play the thing. I have everything under control. I just have to minimise my mistakes. I played the hardest five holes on the course [Tucson] the best last week and the five easiest the worst. Just dumb stuff. But that is super easy to clean up.”
The clock had yet to strike 9am in Florida when Koepka sat down to speak. He had already walked the dog and been to the gym. He was frank and open, and looked at ease with himself. It felt like the start of a fresh chapter, Koepka 2.0 perhaps. He parted with a smile. “I feel good,” he said. “Look good, feel good, play good, right?” It was less a question than a declaration. Koepka’s back.
Source : INews