AUGUSTA, Ga. — It’s been a long time since we’ve seen Brooks Koepka look like this. Long enough, it seems, for Brooks to forget he could look like this.
Koepka’s Masters Friday was vintage Koepka: fast, efficient and ruthless. All of Augusta National seemed to bend to his will, from the quiet wind and warm air ideal for his sky-high ballflight to the early tee time that aided his preferred pace of play (blistering). By the time he made his third of four birdies or better on the par-5 13th, Koepka was two holes clear of the group behind him — the trio of Harold Varner, K.H. Lee and Sepp Straka — and four strokes clear of the remainder of the field.
Everything about Koepka’s opening 36 holes at Augusta National seemed plucked straight from the days of yore, right down to his yellow shoes. At the end of a rain-plagued Friday, he sits at 12 under par and leads by three strokes. But things are not the way they used to be for Koepka, the product of two years worth of injuries and his lightning-rod decision to leave the PGA Tour in favor of a reported $100 million payday at LIV Golf.
Now, he says, he’s starting to wonder why.
“I think there’s probably six of us that live probably within a quarter mile of each other, so we end up running into each other a good bit,” Koepka said of his former PGA Tour peers. “It’s just competitively where you miss playing against them, right? Because you want Rory [McIlroy] to play his best and Scottie [Scheffler] to play his best and Jon [Rahm] to play his best and go toe-to-toe with them. I do miss that, and that’s one thing that I do miss.”
Koepka’s name has come up often in rumors surrounding a potential LIV-to-PGA Tour reverse defection. And though he says he’s happy with his chosen future, it’s clear in some ways, he feels relegated by it.
“It’s more just two friends just wanting to play together. I guess you could look at it that way,” he said of his Tuesday practice round with Rory McIlroy. “Yeah, I just wanted to play with him, just compare my game. I know he’s been playing well. It was good for me to see. We haven’t played with these guys in a long time, so just getting out to go play with them has been nice because it’s been a lot of just seeing everybody.”
It’s been a long time since Brooks has seen Brooks. This version of him, at least. In those days — before the obscurity, the miserable press conferences and the melodramatic Netflix appearances — Koepka wasn’t just their friend, he was their competitor, destroying everything in his path with astonishing force and (at most) passive interest. Against that same group of PGA Tour stars, Koepka won four majors without ever looking like he was trying very hard.
But then came that fateful day after his victory at the 2021 WM Phoenix Open. Koepka was home in Florida when he slipped and twisted his knee. At first, his kneecap was only dislocated, but then he tried to snap it back into place and shattered it to pieces. The resulting injury was gruesome, and the most optimistic recovery time was 18 months.
Koepka was 30 then, edging toward the back nine of his career, and though he attacked rehab and gutted through pain-filled starts, the results weren’t there. In 2022, his four majors starts resulted in two T55 finishes and two MCs, the first of which came at the Masters and nearly resulted in a broken windshield … or hand.
“I don’t even know if I should be saying this, but pretty sure I tried to break the back window with my fist of the car, I tried to put it through the back window, not once but twice,” Koepka said Friday. “First time didn’t go, so figured try it again.”
But by far his most explosive major start came in June, when Koepka was pushed on his rumored connection to LIV and balked, accusing the media of “casting a black cloud” over the tournament. Less than 10 days later, LIV officially announced his signing.
At the time, his decision seemed trivial. Koepka was already wealthy; why pass up a chance at competing with the best in the game for a payday?
In March of this year, when Koepka appeared on Netflix’s Full Swing, we got a better picture of the man in full. His injury had taken a larger toll than we realized. Koepka’s decision to leave for LIV wasn’t solely rooted in money, it was rooted in a crisis of health … and confidence.
“Last year was pretty tough. Just a lot of frustration. Felt like I should have been ahead of where I was,” he said, in his typically blunt style. “Some other things off the course happened, and it just doesn’t put you in a good mood, and it’s tough to wake up every day and go through the whole grind.”
“I felt like glass. Always breaking. It’s not fun. But I’ve come a long way since then.”
A long way, indeed. When the calendar flipped to 2023, Koepka found he was healthy again. Before long, he started winning.
Wins at LIV events in Saudi Arabia and Orlando — his first in two years — set the stage for another Masters start, which to date has resulted in his best 36-hole score ever at the event, and the early lead.
“To be here is special,” he says. “It’s a special event.”
In most ways, this is good news for Koepka. Gone are the Augusta National grimaces of 2021 and ’22, even if joy hasn’t exactly replaced them. No, in speaking to Koepka both days, the emotion that resonated most was wistfulness. No example of this was more illuminating than at the end of his press conference on Friday afternoon, when a reporter wondered if Koepka might have chosen his professional future differently had he been healthier.
“Honestly, yeah, probably, if I’m being completely honest. I think it would have been,” he said. “But I’m happy with the decision I made.”
This could wind up a special Masters week for Koepka. Maybe it’ll be the first major win of his suddenly bright future.
So far, though, the Masters hasn’t been about his future, but rather about the past he left behind.