During Sunday’s final-round coverage of the year’s first major, Brooks Koepka was almost nowhere to be found.
Karma was everywhere.
It lingered in the mists blowing off the water. It hung heavy in the foggy San Francisco air.
To the non-believer, that might sound like so much hooey, the idea of some kind of cosmic comeuppance.But you had to wonder after what happened to Koepka during crunch time at TPC Harding Park.
This, after all, was meant to be his moment, the two-time defending PGA Champion destined for his third-straight coronation.
Everybody sensed it. Koepka sensed it, too.
You could see it in his swagger, that broad-shouldered saunter that he carries everywhere. But mostly, you could hear it in the words he chose.
“It’s just a comfort level,” Koepka said after a posting a Saturday 69 that put him into the third-to-last group on Sunday, two strokes off the pace set by his former workout sidekick, Dustin Johnson. “I feel very comfortable around the lead in the big events.”
And even more at ease speaking his mind.
Asked about the major-winner he was chasing, Koepka doubled-down, then dug in.
“I mean, I like my chances,” said the man with four majors to his credit. “When I’ve been in this position before, I’ve capitalized. I don’t know. (DJ’s) only won one. I’m playing good. I don’t know, we’ll see.”
Compared to the smack-talk that goes down in other sports, it was hardly incendiary bulletin-board fodder. But this is golf. You can root for yourself but not against your opponent. You can praise your own game without pooh-poohing someone else.
In his rise to the position of golf-world alpha, Koepka has shown refreshing candor, though his proclamations of self-belief have sometimes come across as a dismissal of his peers. Not everybody likes it. But nobody can say he hasn’t backed it up.
Yet even by Koepka’s unapologetic standards, his comments about his old pal DJ seemed especially blunt-edged.
No less than Rory McIlroy was taken aback.
“It’s a very different mentality to bring to golf that I don’t think a lot of golfers have,” McIlroy said. “Whether he was trying to play mind games or not — if he’s trying to play mind games, he’s trying to do it to the wrong person. I don’t think DJ really gives much of a concern for that.”
Whether or not he’d rankled DJ, Koepka appeared to have irked the golf gods, who quickly made their displeasure clear.
On his opening tee shot, a Koepka bomb down the middle had an air of deju vu: Sunday at a major, and here we go again. But after a missed birdie bid on that 1st green, a drive into the hay on the 2nd hole produced a bogey. A ho-hum par on 3, and then a disappointing par on the vulnerable par-5 4th.
What was this? Brooks Koepka in a major, looking out of sorts?
Three holes later, on the reachable par-4 7th, Koepka, normally a silverback of aggression, laid back with an iron off the tee, and landed in the rough. Another bogey. The gap between him and Johnson had swelled from two to five.
Two more Koepka bogies followed, on 8 and 9.
But by then the TV cameras had abandoned him.
For the next several hours, as the coverage hop-skipped among a thick group of contenders, Koepka appeared in only fleeting glimpses, usually in the backdrop as his playing partner, Paul Casey, blazed his way into the hunt. It was a stunning role reversal. In the brightest hour of a major championship, Koepka had been reduced to a supporting actor in someone else’s show.
It was late afternoon, with a coastal chill blanketing Harding Park, when the cameras caught up with Koepka again, putting out for bogey on 18 for a dispiriting four-over Sunday 74.
What went wrong?
In his post-round post-mortem, Koepka allowed that he’d drawn an ugly lie on the 7th hole. But otherwise, he offered no excuses. He didn’t blame the crowds, or lack thereof. He didn’t blame his surgically repaired left knee.
“You know, hey,” he said. “Wasn’t meant to be.”
Still, what happened, happened. On Sunday in San Francisco, Koepka didn’t just lose his grip on the Wanamaker Trophy. He lost at least some of his aura of invincibility.
Ask Achilles. It’s hard to get that back.
How that might affect him, or his opponents, remains to be seen.
Koepka himself did not sound troubled.
“Three in a row, you’re not really supposed to do two in a row looking at history, but that’s all right,” he said. “Got two more the rest of the season and we’ll figure it out from there.”
Maybe it’s that simple; Koepka certainly has made it look that way, winning four majors in 23 months. Maybe he’ll hop right back on the train. But golf is funny. The fates are fickle. Among superstitious golfers — which is to say, most golfers — it seemed plausible to think that, with his bluster, the two-time defending champ might have run afoul of fortune.
Koepka, meet karma.
It can be kind. Or it can be cruel.