Brooks Koepka is down, but can he still contend at the PGA Championship?
TULSA, Okla. — It isn’t clear when exactly Brooks Koepka’s hip started bothering him, or if it’s still bothering him now, but he was certainly feeling it during the Masters a month ago. Early in the week, there was consideration to withdraw from the year’s first major. But if he pulled out unexpectedly, hampered at yet another major, how might that look?
Here’s Koepka, injured again.
Koepka gutted it out instead, and even reached two under through 10 holes of his first round. But a balky putter led to five back-nine bogeys and a 75. “I’ve never seen his putter this cold,” said his dad, Bob Koepka, as Brooks bogeyed 18 on Friday to polish off another 75 and a missed cut.
Unless your name is Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson, a 75-75 showing generally doesn’t create much media interest, so Koepka left the property without being asked about his health. He took off the rest of April, which he typically does, traveled to Turks and Caicos with his fiancée for some final wedding prep and then withdrew from last week’s AT&T Byron Nelson.
All of that could have major bearing on his PGA Championship, pessimists would say. Optimists would think it doesn’t matter at all. Koepka himself says he’s totally fine.
“The whole reason [for withdrawing] was to just make sure that I’m ready for this week,” he said Tuesday afternoon. “I feel ready, and now just got to play good. Simple.”
Inquiring minds were curious about Koepka’s status Monday when his caddie, Ricky Elliot, was out walking the course alone in the early afternoon at Southern Hills, a potential sign that his boss was enjoying a little more rest. But Koepka soon joined his looper for a walk around the front nine. After five practice holes with Stewart Cink, Koepka tossed a dart into the 6th green, down a hill to the furthest corner of the property. After his Srixon came to rest on the green some 214 yards away, Koepka turned to hug Cink, signifying that at least someone’s round was over. Surely, the man who battled a lower-body injury last month was ready to call it a day, not walking down the hill and then eventually back up it. But no! The player calling it quits Monday afternoon was Cink. Koepka and Elliot moved on down the hill, with more to learn about Southern Hills.
If there’s one thing to know about Koepka, it’s that he’s an assured dude. When he’s upset with his play, he takes a break in the weeks that follow. When the putter lets him down, it’s the putter he’s spends the most time on. For the last month, he’s been working with Jeff Pierce, intently watching old footage of his putting stroke during his major championship wins. When he has a major in his foreground, he doesn’t care about anything else, especially TPC Craig Ranch.
Whether or not he’s still handicapped by the same issues from April, Koepka doesn’t seem interested in elaborating on the topic. He was given an opportunity immediately in his press conference to explain his WD last week. His answer? The scoring at TPC Craig Ranch, last week’s Tour host, which saw K.H. Lee take the Byron Nelson at 26 under par. Koepka played that course last year and didn’t feel that playing it was the best way to prepare him for a major test this week.
It’s become a more equal battle in recent years between the Koepka pessimists and the Koepka optimists. He’s constructed a truly confusing season of four top-16 finishes alternating between three missed cuts. Consecutive missed cuts, we might add, at Augusta National, the easiest major cut to make. And yet, Mr. Major is on the extremely short list of pros who can say they’ve finished in the top 10 of half their major championship starts. Injured or not, that’s why he’s here, and that’s why his defenders don’t get bothered by his 40-to-1 odds.
“If you look at his starts in the majors,” Koepka’s short-game coach Pete Cowen told me recently, “he’s been there or thereabouts in virtually all of them over a 20-major period. With the exception of the ones that he’s been injured in.”
The man isn’t wrong. But that qualifier, well, Cowen isn’t quite sure what to do with it.
“A Brooks Koepka that is free of injury,” Cowen said, “is still the best player in the world.”