The Year of Brooks looked pretty bleak back in April, when he and I sat down for lunch at the Floridian, his home club in Palm City. A wrist injury had taken Koepka off the Tour and put him on the couch for Masters week. He didn’t know when he was coming back. He didn’t know IF he was coming back. But six months and two major victories later, here we sit, 30 miles south, at the Bear’s Club, recapping Koepka’s extraordinary 2018 Player of the Year campaign. Talk about a 180°.
By late May at Colonial, a fully-recovered Koepka felt his game kick into gear. By mid-August, he was polishing silver from wins at the U.S. Open and PGA Championship. His season ended in Paris, where misfortune at the Ryder Cup — Team USA’s devastating loss and a nightmare accident in which a French spectator was injured by a Koepka drive — showed him, once again, to be human indeed. This vulnerable Koepka is mystified — maybe miffed is the word — by what he perceives to be a lack of respect from the media and general indifference from golf fans. He keeps wondering: What gives?
What follows, in a conversation that took place just days after the Ryder Cup, is how he thinks, what he feels and where he hopes he’s headed.
When you look back on this year, is there one highlight, three highlights? What do you think of?
There are a lot of things to choose from. I think my injury turned out to be a blessing in disguise. I fell back in love with the game. It was a low point but a high point at the same time. I made another double eagle, defended a major, and won two majors in the same year. There’s a lot of high points there. When this year started, I didn’t think it was attainable. It was more like, ‘It’d be nice to be back out playing again.’
When did you believe a season like this was attainable?
After I did it. [Laughs]
Was there a point in, say, May or late April, when everything clicked?
At Colonial. At Colonial it was like, ‘Man, I am knocking on the door. I am really knocking on the door.’ This is where I should be when you go into the Masters in April. When we finished that event, yes it was disappointing I didn’t win, but I remember leaving that golf course on Sunday night, thinking we’re very, very close.
And you know when you’re close. You know when you’re about to peak. That’s a cool feeling because the next few weeks, you’re so excited to go tee it up. I’ve almost predicted every win that I’ve had, which has kind of been unique and cool. It’s always been, ‘Man, one of these next few weeks, we’re gonna pop off.’
Six months ago, you and I were talking about how you were the forgotten man at the Masters because you couldn’t play. Do you still think you’re the forgotten man in some sense? Do you ever feel that way?
Kind of. A little bit. If you look at it just on stats — three majors, okay, well Jordan Spieth has three majors. But then there’s a big difference [in how we’re perceived]? So, yeah, a little bit. I know he’s won more regular Tour events, but at the end of the day, at the end of anybody’s career, I’m not saying the PGA Tour events don’t matter, but the first thing you look at is majors. When you say, ‘How many wins does Jack Nicklaus have,’ you’re not gonna tell how many PGA Tour events he’s had. You’re going to go right to the majors.
You told me one of the coolest things about winning your first major was Rich Beem came up to you and told you how many people have won a major in their career. It’s like 220 or so. Then you go out and win two more. Do you know how many have won three?
I do not, actually. That’d be pretty cool. Do you know the number?
That’s pretty cool.
Do you know how many have won four?
Probably in the twenties.
Twenty-eight. Now that you’ve won three, is four the next thing you focus on?
Yeah, but I think what I’m most looking forward to is the career grand slam. I know it’s probably jumping the gun a little bit. I’ve always felt like I was going to win a British Open at St. Andrews. That place is suited for me. I love golf at St. Andrews. I think I’ve got probably three good chances to do it there. One has kinda passed. I made a triple on a hole in the first round in 2015. We had a lost ball, though we don’t really know where it went. I enjoy links golf so much, I think I’ll win one there.
Augusta has been the one major I’ve struggled at the most, but I’ve gone 31st, 21st, and 11th, so you tell me. I just have to knock off one of the ones. That’d be a pretty cool stat — 31, 21, 11 and one. That’d be pretty neat.
I think during some of your wins — at least your major wins — you’ve won while seeming annoyed. Either about being the forgotten man, or about a lack of public attention. Is there a connection between your wins and being annoyed? Does a lack of Brooks hype inspire you?
It definitely motivates me a little bit. I am good at putting a chip on my shoulder. At the PGA [Championship] it felt that way. I remember walking off the golf course and I looked to my right. There’s a guy being interviewed who had never won a major. I think he was one shot worse than I was after the first day. I wasn’t even in a bad spot. I was T-15 maybe. Then the U.S. Open, there I was more embarrassed with my opening round. [Koepka shot 75 in the first round at Shinnecock.]
Your first nine?
Well, I actually felt like I played alright.
You definitely grinded.
Yeah, it was a real grind. It was really tough. I was more embarrassed with my score that day and how I had come back there to defend the title. There was a lot of motivation Thursday night and Thursday evening.
Where does it come from, TV attention?
Yeah, I noticed I got left off the [Golf Channel] notables as the defending champ and top 10 in the world. Sometimes I don’t really get it, but at the same time it’s not up to me. I can’t choose that. I think a lot of times I’m a little misunderstood on how you see me. How we might interact and what you see on the golf course — there’s two different people.
Do you think there’s a reason for that?
It’s that I’m so focused. There’s really nothing more to it. I’ve told you about it. I get in that zone, even if I’m relaxing or whatever, where I just zone out. I don’t even hear anybody. You could ask me a question five times and I don’t even hear it. I’m so into what I’m doing in the moment, and golf is my surrounding where I can do that. You put me inside those ropes and I’m focused on getting that ball in the hole as quickly as possible.
It can be kind of misunderstood with my personality. I get that. I’m not always smiling when I’m on the golf course. Sometimes, hey listen, people have regular jobs. You go to them when they’re working and you catch them not in the best moment either. So I understand how people could perceive me. But come get to know me and I’m totally a different person.
What did you learn about being in contention with Tiger Woods at the PGA?
It’s really cool [laughs]. I’ve said it a million times, when I was seven to 10 years old, practicing my putts on the putting green, it was, ‘Make a putt to beat Tiger Woods.’ And Adam Scott. Those were two of my role models, two guys I idolized growing up. To be on that back nine and hear those Tiger roars that I hadn’t heard in a while — that nobody had heard in a long time — it was cool. To beat out those two guys and see Tiger there waiting for me when I got done? It was a day I’ll never forget. My mom was there. So was my best friend. It was a lot of fun.
I’m sitting there right of the 18th green as you’re walking up the fairway. People had just seen Tiger putt and they were off, leaving the course. They were not staying to watch you finish out your major. If you could tell them something, what would it be? What are they missing?
Nothing, because if I had shown up for the event I would have probably gone to watch Tiger Woods, too.
You think so?
Yeah. I mean, I get it. My whole life I grew up watching Tiger Woods. If I tuned in to a golf tournament, that’s who I watched. St. Louis is an unbelievable sporting town and their fans are very passionate. Rightfully so. You’ve got one of the best players to ever play the game right in front of you. If I was a fan watching, I would have followed him all day. So, I don’t blame them. I get it.
Back in April you told me you wanted to take DJ off his top spot. You didn’t envy Justin Thomas at No. 2. You envied DJ at No. 1. Were you upset that you were just decimals away from achieving it?
Yeah, I knew what every shot was. It was Boston and Philly. I knew exactly what I needed to do. DJ made a good Sunday charge, and rightfully so. A good player, if he’s not in contention, is gonna make a push on Sunday to get that backdoor top 10. He did a good job of it. Props to him. That’s still my priority right now. It’s something I haven’t done yet [Ed. note: Koepka won in Korea in October to finally grab the top spot.]. That’s where I want to be. It’d be really cool to do it on a week when we’re both playing. Not on a week where it’s an off week and I just happen to jump him. I want to feel like I’ve really earned that and I’ve beat him to do it. To have one of your best friends, to jump him, would be special for me. It really would.
I want you to watch this video.
— Sean Zak (@Sean_Zak) September 30, 2018
The reason why, is because this gave me goosebumps. You were telling me in April how desperate you were to get back out in front of the fans. To feel that craziness on the 1st tee. What was it like to lead off the Ryder Cup in the first match on Friday?
I loved it. That’s the reason why I wanted to go out first. I wanted me and Tony [Finau] to go out first. First off, I felt like it was really going to help Tony’s career. He’s such a good player and he’s a lot like me. I could see that scenario really progressing him to be in my shoes. I really could see that. I think it’s going to jumpstart his career. I really do. Every time we stood on that first tee, it gives me chills. That’s a real sporting event. That’s what, as a golfer, you want to be a part of every two years. You want to be playing at the Ryder Cup.
I got a taste of it at Hazeltine. That first day, watching Patrick and Jordan tee off. I wasn’t even playing in the matches, I just showed up to support the guys. That was the coolest thing I’ve ever been a part of. I wasn’t even playing. I just watched them for nine holes. The way the fans are, you go back to France this year and there’s three times the amount of people on the first tee. They’re all yelling and chanting, chanting for Europe which was cool.
I know a lot has happened since that one fateful tee shot at the Ryder Cup, where one of your drives hit a spectator in her eye. What was the aftermath of that incident like?
Well, first off, it’s a tragic accident. Unfortunately, I can’t do anything more than I did, and that’s the sad part. It’s unfortunate. It almost has to be perfectly timed for that bad of an accident to happen. Nobody feels worse than me. I’ve been torn up about it for about a week now. When I heard the news [about her losing eyesight], my phone blew up. I reached out to her. I can’t imagine what she’s going through. To have your life change, have it flipped upside down, to never be able to see out of her eye again, it’s unfortunate. I don’t even know what to say. I really feel terrible.
Following the accident, one of the first things she said publicly was that you were gracious to her, offering your time and condolences on site in France.
I feel terrible every time I hit somebody. It’s bad to say it, but it’s not the first person I’ve ever hit and it probably won’t be the last. Spectators are out walking the golf course, it’s hard to control your golf ball. Especially if it’s windy. Unfortunately, it happens almost every week. It’s just one of those things.
The Ryder Cup obviously didn’t go as planned. Rory and the Euros raced off after that first session. Given the year you had, did you consider yourself the American thoroughbred?
No, not really. I’m pretty humble. I don’t view myself as what other people view me. I view myself as an ordinary guy, like anyone else in the street. I don’t view myself as the professional golfer, the three-time major champ.
Is it difficult to do that?
Nah, that’s just me. That’s who I am. I’ve got a big heart. I don’t get caught up in the hoopla of who people want me to be. I just am who I am. The second I start to change, I want the people around me to tell me. I don’t want yes people around me. I want them to keep it real and tell me how it is. Yo, if you’re starting to get a big head, I want them to call me out. Those are the people I love having around me. Everyone around me is able to do that and speak their mind and say, ‘Yo, you’re not being you.’ I’ll never change, that’s just the way I view myself.
I was looking at your caddie Ricky Elliot’s Instagram and came across this old photo.
View this post on Instagram
Yeah, that’s me. I’ll tell you the back story of that one. We were on vacation in Thailand. We were out at sea and the captain of the boat wanted to take us around to a couple places. We found a soccer court. I’d say it was a pitch, but it was concrete. We found these five or six kids to play against. It was me, my buddy Dan and my caddie. We’re out there with one of Rickie’s buddies and just playing soccer with these five or six young kids. We were like kids laughing. That’s me. If there’s a ball, let’s go play.
What do you get out of non-golf traveling that you don’t get during your day job?
I just love experiencing different cultures. I just enjoy hopping on a scooter, riding through town. You’ve got the wind going, just trying to find your way. Whether it’s going to a new restaurant, trying different foods, trying to meet the locals. For once they treat me like a normal person. If I walk into their restaurant bar, I’m just some guy who walked in. I’m not this golfer that everyone else might perceive me to be. It’s nice, sometimes, to just be a normal person.
Where are you going next?
I don’t know. I love Asia. Asia is awesome. I haven’t really thought about it. I’ve got a busy schedule coming up. If I get a week off, who knows. Somewhere with a beach, warm weather. Anywhere like that sounds good.
World travel has been part of your professional upbringing on the European and Euro Challenge tour. Are there things that you do in 2018 where you can think back and say, ‘That’s what I learned on the Euro Tour or Challenge Tour.’
It all plays a part down the line. That maturity I learned on the European tour and Challenge tour definitely played a part in winning majors, winning regular events around the world. Some parts are more obvious than others. Learning how to win, learning how to cross that finish line was a big thing. Learning how to do it consistently, too. I won four times in 15 events.
Trying to learn how to travel, learn about jet lag. There’s a lot of things that come with it when there’s more travel. I grew as a person, grew as a player and it absolutely helps me every week. You may not see it every week, but I’m not who I am today without it.
Is there a short way of telling the Kenya story that you teased to the public at the Ryder Cup?
Yeah, we got lost. We got in a taxi. [Fellow pro] George Murray and me. I’m not sure the taxi driver ever had plans of taking us to the hotel. We go to a gas station and three guys come out from around the corner under a blanket and get into the car and forced us to get moving. I called my family, turned on my location services because I wasn’t going to give up my phone. They tried to take my phone. I just told my family my phone would be close by, if you ever want to find me.
That’s basically where it was at. I called my manager, too; I called everybody I could. Nobody was going to be able to do anything — it was up to George and me at the time. I’m glad he was there with me. I’m sure he probably thinks the same thing because we had no idea where that was going. [After a three-hour drive that should have taken 20 minutes, Koepka and Murray arrived safely at their hotel.]
When you talk about the most important things in your life, it tends to be the people around you.
Yeah, a lot of them are in that group.
Who else are the pillars in Brooks’s life?
Dustin [Johnson] is one of them. A lot of them are guys I grew up with, guys in those photos. When I was in middle school. All the way through high school, those are some of my closest friends. They don’t know much about golf. They could care less.
Is that good?
Yeah, it is good. It’s nice to have them around. It helps ease your mind at times. You can get so focused on your job and forget real life. They’re there to keep me humble. They’re fun; they’re energetic. Obviously I don’t get to see them very much. Two of them live in Florida, one is in Boston, one is in Charlotte. They keep me grounded and humble. They bring the best out in me, otherwise I wouldn’t have them around.
Let’s put it this way, if I made a mistake and screwed up, whether it’s golf or I’ve done something stupid in life, they’re the first people to rag on me for it. Keep me humble, keep me joking and laughing about it. Otherwise, it could drive you crazy. I remember, I messed up the playoff with Sergio in Dallas three years ago. I hit it in the water. They were the first people to say ‘Nice tee shot.’ They know you’re pissed, you’re mad, but at the same time, they’re going to be there if I win, or if lost.
Who is the most important person in your life?
There’s not just one. There’s four or five people that probably have given me some of the best advice I’ve ever gotten. That keep me grounded, that always keep me looking forward, no matter what it might be. Forward to the next thing in life, the next thing in golf, whatever might come my way. Whether golf stops tomorrow or not, you’re going to do something, so do something with your life. Help improve somebody else’s.
It’s kind of a mixture of those four or five people — it’s not just one. Behind closed doors, they’ve all got different roles in my life. When you combine them, and really take their advice and put it to good use, I can see a lot of progress just in my personal life or in my golf, too. A lot of times, when your mind is at ease off the golf course, it becomes very at ease on the golf course.
Who are those people?
No, I keep them a secret. I know who they are. They know who they are.
Brooks the athlete is one of the greatest golfers on the planet. Do you consider yourself of the same ilk as Lebron, the greatest basketball player on the planet, or Aaron Rodgers the greatest quarterback on the planet?
I’ve never thought of it that way, but I wouldn’t put myself in that category. Basketball is more global. The global popularity they have and the outreach they have is a lot more global than golf. What he’s done, with his schools, everything, he’s touched so many lives. He’ll change so many lives for young kids and families.
Do you have goals like that?
Yeah, absolutely. A lot of times you won’t hear about it. You won’t hear what charity contributions or foundations or if I’m trotting up somewhere just to help a junior golf thing, you probably won’t hear about it. I’m trying to be better about it. A lot of times, just showing up to see the kids faces. I’ve taken trips to St. Jude. That’s probably one of the most humbling things you could ever do. All these kids put a smile on, day after day, with all they have to do, is incredible. It makes you really appreciate life. It reminds you that golf is golf. It’s not life. It’s not life or death.