How you like me now? Self-styled underdog Brooks Koepka overpowers Bellerive to win third major title in 14 months

August 13, 2018

ST. LOUIS — The Brooks Koepka Disrespect Tour blew through Bellerive last week. One of the most talented and successful players of his generation has built a career on feeling underappreciated. It has fueled him ever since his favorite college (Florida) failed to recruit him and then, after a strong career at Florida State, he was snubbed for the Walker Cup team. The bitterness metastasized at the outset of Koepka’s pro career, during a self-imposed exile on the European tour while his contemporaries were becoming superstars under the bright lights of the PGA Tour.

The bile spills out at unexpected times. On the eve of winning his second straight U.S. Open, Koepka complained that earlier in the week he wasn’t featured on a Golf Channel graphic listing the scores of “notables.” In the ensuing champion’s press conference, he said, “I’m always overlooked.” At the 100th PGA Championship, Koepka kept going back to his greatest hits. He was miffed that no reporters wanted to interview him after an opening 69 that left him in 32nd place.

Following the third round, during which he built a two-stroke lead to push him to the precipice of so much history, Koepka ruefully told the story of being snubbed at a gym that morning while fans fawned over his buddy Dustin Johnson, the world number one and an unwitting social media star thanks to the posts of his not shy fiancé Paulina Gretzky. “I use it as motivation,” Koepka said. He took solace in the simple fact that his scores were too good to ignore: “You can’t hide when you’re on the top of the leaderboard. You can’t hide my name.”

What are we to make of Koepka, the self-styled underdog, now that he has emerged as the most dominant player of his generation? On Sunday, he fought off Tiger Woods and a variety of A-listers with some outrageously clutch play en route to a victory at the PGA, along the way setting a tournament scoring record with a four-round total of 264 (69-63-66-66). Koepka becomes only the fifth man to win the U.S. Open and PGA Championship in the same year and this is his third major championship triumph in the last 14 months. That’s three times as many majors as Johnson has won and equal to the haul of the Golden Child, Jordan Spieth, a media darling who has become an heir to Palmer and Mickelson in that his blowups are as defining as his victories.

Brooks Koepka didn't let up on Sunday, shooting 66 and winning the PGA Championship by two over Tiger Woods.
Brooks Koepka didn’t let up on Sunday, shooting 66 and winning the PGA Championship by two over Tiger Woods.

Koepka, now second in the World Ranking, has earned the highest compliment that can be bestowed upon a golfer: He has become as ruthless a closer as Tiger and Jack. More of the acclaim that Koepka so desperately seeks is forthcoming, as his peers and the Golf Writers Association of America will surely vote him the player of the year. At 28, he has virtually guaranteed himself a spot in the Hall of Fame; no contemporary player with three major championship victories has been kept out. Given the completeness of this record performance — macho driving, deft wedge play, clutch putting — it is now clear that Koepka will be the favorite at every major going forward unless he gets injured or bored. Yet despite all of that, on Sunday night at Bellerive there was still evidence a chip remains on Koepka’s shoulder. “I don’t care what anyone thinks about me,” he said.

There is plenty of precedent for such flintiness. Michael Jordan reinvented a sport in his image and yet he collected and nurtured the smallest of slights and he held on to them deep into retirement, the ugliness spilling out in an infamous Hall of Fame induction speech. Tiger Woods was a living legend by his mid-20s but he loved to invent unlikely adversaries, whether through a petty feud with NBC’s Jimmy Roberts or gleeful on-course undressing of Stephen Ames (“9 and 8”).

Koepka looks like the leading man in a Hollywood action flick, squires a glamorous girlfriend (model/actress Jena Sims) and was set for life even before he won $1.98 million at Bellerive. At this point it’s fair to wonder whether his woe-is-me pronouncements are mere schtick. But I have seen firsthand how Koepka is wired. At one of the most triumphant moments of his life — the champion’s press conference at Shinnecock — he tried to boot me out of the room. It was a weird and deeply enlightening moment.

It’s a long story, but after lobbying hard to get Koepka on the cover of SI following his breakthrough at Erin Hills, I brokered another cover story for him, for GOLF Magazine, focusing on his and Johnson’s tight relationship with their shared trainer, Joey Diovisalvi. All three were supposed to be on the cover but the photos didn’t work out and the June 2018 cover of GOLF wound up being just the U.S. Open champions. Koepka was upset that Joey D. didn’t get his due and it was telling that he cared so deeply about honoring a member of his team who toils in the shadows. I called Diovisalvi to apologize and GOLF’s top editor had a long chat with the management company that reps Koepka and Johnson, taking responsibility for the decision.

I didn’t realize Koepka was still sizzling about this until Sunday night in Shinnecock. As I walked into the champion’s conference his agent got in my face and said, “Don’t even think about asking him a question.” I was so surprised I couldn’t formulate a reply. We were blocking the walkway and reporters were streaming in, so I just kept moving forward to find an open seat. Koepka was up at the dais, seated with his glittering trophy. When I looked up he pointed at me and said, “You, out.”

No player, even a reigning two-time U.S. Open champ, has the authority to eject a reporter from a press conference. I’m not sure any other player would even be thinking about it at such a moment. I took my seat. Koepka whispered something to the USGA official presiding over the proceedings and the press conference began. I hadn’t walked into the room with any particularly pressing question to ask and given the vibe in the room I decided it was prudent not to come up with one.

How hot Koepka burns on the inside is certainly what makes him interesting and different from his more popular peers. Spieth and Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler connect with fans because they’re carefree bros having a blast while jet-setting around the world playing a game for a living. Koepka will never be that guy. He doesn’t even identify as a golfer, instead preferring to call himself an athlete. He loves to say golf is boring, that he never watches it, and that he’s not a “golf nerd,” what he considers the ultimate putdown.

But for the players who love the game, and the fans and reporters who find it thrilling to watch — the nerds — how are we supposed to warm up to him? The golf world is treating Koepka exactly the way he has reacted to all of his major championship wins: with scant emotion. On the final green on Sunday, facing only a tap-in to tidy up the victory, Koepka’s playing partner Adam Scott motioned for him to mark his ball and let Scott putt-out so the champ could have the stage all to himself. Koepka ignored the advice and brushed in his winning putt, offering only a muted tip of the cap to the puzzled and subdued crowd.

At the champion’s press conference on Sunday night I asked Koepka if he thinks this win — and the player of the year and de facto Hall of Fame honors that come with it — will lead to the widespread recognition and appreciation he so openly craves. “Hope so,” he said, blowing off the question.

Clearly, Koepka still has an edge. That’s bad news for every other golfer on the planet.