Look out, world: A healthy Brooks Koepka is co-leading the Masters
AUGUSTA, Ga. — Did you listen to Brooks Koepka on Sunday? He tried to warn us.
You remember Koepka, don’t you? It wasn’t long ago he was golf’s most dominant major championship player and ultimate agitator in a sport with few of the latter.
He won four majors in eight starts from 2017 to 2019, has a dozen other major top 10s in his career and rose to No. 1 in the World Ranking. He drove Bryson DeChambeau mad, and his unique concoction of brutal honesty and arrogance left fans either pleasantly refreshed or completely put off.
Anyway, that guy is tied for the lead at this 87th Masters, after he shot a seven-under 65 on a steamy Thursday afternoon at Augusta National Golf Club. He’s sitting at the top alongside Viktor Hovland and Jon Rahm. That trio is two clear of the next closest competitors.
“I don’t think I’ve rediscovered anything,” Koepka said. “I just think I’m healthy.”
So is it really that surprising to see Koepka here after one round? Perhaps not.
He battled knee injuries for years, had surgery on his left knee in August 2019 and the right one in March 2021. It’s taken time for them to heal, especially after the latest surgery (Koepka was told by the doctor to expect a year-and-a-half recovery time). There was a hip injury, too, and it all caught up to him last year, as he missed the cut at the Masters and tied for 55th at the PGA Championship.
Then there’s that whole LIV thing that happened amid these struggles last summer, which is another layer to this story. At the U.S. Open, Koepka became irritated with media members’ persistent questions related to LIV Golf, which played its inaugural event a week earlier. His brother, Chase, had already signed on.
“I’m trying to focus on the U.S. Open, man. I legitimately don’t get it. I’m tired of the conversations. I’m tired of all this stuff,” he said. “Like I said, y’all are throwing a black cloud on the U.S. Open. I think that sucks. I actually do feel bad for [the USGA] for once because it’s a s—– situation. We’re here to play, and you are talking about an event that happened last week.”
Seven days later, news broke that Koepka was the latest LIV signee.
But his results didn’t improve. He missed the cut at the Open Championship, and in his first five LIV events, he never finished better than ninth. In October, he finally put it together, winning LIV’s regular-season finale in Jeddah.
Yet that win didn’t register as much back in the States. Come February, Netflix’s Full Swing docuseries aired. In it, Koepka vented about his form and injuries, saying things like, “Jena [his wife] will be talking to me and I’m thinking about my damn golf swing,” and “I go back to the first major I ever won — I’d pay back every dollar I’ve ever made just to have that feeling again for another hour.”
This was all filmed before Koepka’s Jeddah victory.
“It showed a different side of him people have never seen — that’s he vulnerable and frustrated with injuries,” said Bob Koepka, Brooks’ dad, who was following along on Thursday. (Caroline Wozniacki, the former tennis star, and her husband, former Knicks player David Lee, friends of Koepka, were following as well.) “Everyone thinks he’s a tough guy and doesn’t care, but that showed he did, because he does care.”
Jeddah apparently wasn’t a fluke, as Koepka followed two middling starts to start the 2023 LIV season with a victory four days ago in Florida. He said he’s finally healthy — there’s that warning we were talking about — and backed it up with Thursday’s 65, in which he hit 15 greens in regulation. All this in the opening round of the biggest tournament of the year, which also happens to be doused with the intriguing storyline of 18 LIV golfers teeing it up alongside their PGA Tour counterparts for the first time in nine months.
Some fans have strong opinions on LIV vs. the PGA Tour, just like many do with Koepka.
On Thursday, Koepka made birdies on 2, 3, 7 and 8 to turn in 32 and added another birdie on 12 to get within two of the lead. On 13, as he stalked an 11-footer for par, a dad and son stood on their toes near the 14th tee to see.
“There’s Brooks Koepka,” the dad whispered, a few seconds before Koepka missed his par try. “That’s too bad,” the dad added, smiling in a statement drenched in sarcasm. “Too bad. I feel terrible.”
A few minutes later, on that same 14th tee, a mom let her son sneak in front of her to get a better view. Danny Willett and Gary Woodland had just teed off; Koepka was next.
“Do you like Brooks?” she asked him. He nodded. “Me, too,” she said.
Thirteen was Koepka’s only bogey. He two-putted for birdie on 15 and closed with two more on 17 and 18, the final one after he stuck his approach to just eight feet.
“Love to finish with two birdies like that,” Koepka said. “Just kind of hopefully ride that into tomorrow. You know, putting good, driving it well, just kind of build off all those things, and get myself, you know, in contention with nine to go on Sunday, that’s the whole goal.”
Koepka said his body needs lots of treatment pre- and post-round these days. Gym in the morning. Preventative measures to stop swelling post-round. He jokes his days as a knee model are over but is sincere when he says his body is now close to what it was — you know, back when he was the most-feared golfer in major championships.
“It was definitely frustrating,” he said, “but once you feel good, everything changes.”