BROOKLINE, Mass. — If Brooks Koepka is surprised to be in contention again at the U.S. Open, he’s hiding it well.
Through two rounds at The Country Club, Koepka sits at even par. He rebounded from an opening 73 with a second-round 67 to work his way from the cut line to the top 20. He enters the weekend no more than a handful of shots off the lead. His reaction?
“Maybe a little bit disappointed where I’m at just because of how poorly my iron play is, and usually that’s the best part of my game, and it’s just not even close to even average,” he said.
This is a very Brooks Koepka thing to say. His preference seems to be that you’d never see him surprised nor impressed. “Nonplussed” is his ideal state. Of course, that doesn’t mean he doesn’t believe what he said. That doesn’t mean he’s surprised to be contending. Koepka is a four-time major champion. He’s won this tournament twice. In his last four U.S. Open starts his worst finish is T4. It makes sense he’d have high standards.
But golf hasn’t looked nearly as easy for Koepka of late. He’s battled injury and uneven play. There have been bright spots — he made it to the quarterfinals at the WGC-Match Play and finished T3 at the WM Phoenix Open — but there have been nagging injuries and missed cuts, too. He finished 2018 and 2019 at World No. 1. He’s slipped to World No. 19. For four years he’d been among the game’s elite from tee to green; this year he’s 123rd on Tour in that category. If his iron play was below average on Thursday and Friday, that actually lines up with his season to this point.
One area where Koepka has gotten more honest with the media is in admitting how hard he works when there’s something that has gone wrong.
“I just start beating balls, man. Start practicing. Try to figure out what’s wrong, where,” he said. “You have to be honest with yourself. I think that’s something I’m pretty good at. Just assess what really needs to be done and what areas can improve. Just been grinding away.
“I feel like it’s been really close. Maybe the scores haven’t reflected it, but it’s only a matter of time.”
When Koepka’s playing well, that’s the sense he gives off. It’s only a matter of time. When Koepka shows up at a challenging major championship test, it’s twice as true. I often wonder why Koepka projects so much confidence. Is it because that’s what he feels? Is it because he wants to speak it into existence? Or is it because he wants everybody else to think that’s what he feels? I asked him whether it’s all real or whether, in fact, doubt creeps in. He stayed in character.
“I don’t come here hoping for second place. I think if you are a good player, you want to come in here and win. That’s why everybody is teeing it up. Nobody has a goal of just making the cut or anything like that,” he said. That last bit isn’t quite true, but I understand why it would be helpful for him to think so.
“I mean, I’m pretty confident, but I feel like everybody should be confident in themselves, and if you’re not — people hate confidence. That’s why people aren’t a big fan of me.”
There’s plenty in that last line. Koepka thinks people don’t like him. He thinks it’s because of the confidence he projects. He’s keen on projecting confidence. Put those three things together and it’s fair to assume that Koepka doesn’t much care if you’re not a fan.
It’s worth noting that most people are Koepka fans. People like his edge and they like that he doesn’t give in to golf’s forced gentility nor its cliches. Koepka may not be universally beloved in the same way as Rory McIlroy or Jordan Spieth, but he’s plenty popular. It helps, of course, that he finds himself in the mix at the world’s biggest tournaments.
And here he is again.