‘I’m defending, aren’t I? OK, just checking’ — Why Brooks Koepka never doubts Brooks Koepka

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The questions, at the time, seemed relevant and more than fair.

Brooks Koepka, the former No. 1-ranked golfer in the world and a seven-time winner on the PGA Tour, hadn’t hoisted a trophy in more than a year (366 days to be exact). The winner of four of the past 10 major championships hadn’t played particularly well since the tour’s restart after a three-month layoff because of the coronavirus pandemic, with only one top-10 finish and two missed cuts in five starts.

Koepka hadn’t even broken 70 in six consecutive rounds going into last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, including an 80 in the final 18 holes at the Memorial, where he finished tied for 62nd, the third straight event in which he finished outside the top 60. He hadn’t pulled off that dubious trifecta since the first three PGA Tour events at the start of his career — the 2012 U.S. Open (missed cut), 2013 Open Championship (missed cut) and 2013 PGA Championship (tie for 70th).

With his left knee throbbing because of a partially torn patella tendon, and Koepka admitting that he might need surgery once the fall season ended, it seemed the exasperating game, which had seemed so easy the past couple of years, was finally humbling him — as difficult as that might be to do.

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“It’s very fleeting,” Webb Simpson, a seven-time winner on tour, said last week before the opening round. “The moment you feel like you’re going to play well for a while, the next moment you’re wondering if you’re ever going to play well again.”

Added Michael Thompson, who won the 3M Open last month after waiting more than seven years to win again, “I think that’s the beauty of this game, is everybody’s going to have their own struggles and everybody’s going to have their own journey through professional golf. … Things change over time. Our eyes change, our bodies change, the feels that we have change. The only thing that doesn’t change is the game of golf. You’ve still got to hit the shots and you’ve still got to make the putts. It’s just something we all go through. Hopefully, it’s not a period that’s going to be too long for him.”

Yeah, sorry for wasting your time, gentlemen.

While others might have been questioning Koepka’s form and confidence heading into this week’s PGA Championship at TPC Harding Park in San Francisco, the first major championship of the season, he had no doubts about his game and chances.

The day before his opening round at TPC Southwind in Memphis, a reporter (OK, it was me) asked him, “You’ve always been one of the more confident guys going into majors. With the recent struggles, do you still carry that mindset?”

“I’m defending, aren’t I?” Koepka answered bluntly.

“Yeah,” I responded.

“OK, just checking,” Koepka said.

The next day, Koepka matched the lowest round of his PGA Tour career with a 62. His putter wasn’t nearly as reliable while shooting a 71 on Friday, before he nearly rallied to defend his WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational title with closing rounds of 68 and 69. Trailing Justin Thomas by one stroke heading into the final hole, Koepka took an aggressive line with his tee shot and hit his drive in the water. He finished in a four-way tie for second, three shots behind Thomas.

“I feel good,” Koepka said. “I feel like my game’s right there. This is where we wanted to be, peaking for the PGA.”

That’s not good news for the rest of the field.

After winning at Bellerive in 2018 and Bethpage Black in 2019, Koepka will try to become only the sixth player in the 160-year history of the major championships — and only the third since the start of the 20th century and the first in 64 years — to win a single major three straight times. Walter Hagen was the only player to do it at the PGA Championship from 1924-27, when he won four straight when it was still a match-play event.

Jack Nicklaus didn’t do it. Neither did Ben Hogan, Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player, Tom Watson or Tiger Woods.

“It would be incredible,” Koepka said at a PGA Championship news conference in February. “Obviously, Walter Hagen is a name everybody knows, every golf fan knows. To even have a chance to put my name with his would be incredible and it would be super special.”

That’s the burden and history-making opportunity Koepka will carry with him this week.

“I just want to play good golf, man,” Koepka said. “It’s simple. You start thinking about all the things that could happen, that’s when, you know, I guess nerve, everything else kind of creeps in. Just stay in the moment and keep plugging along.”

Obviously, winning the same major three straight times is rare air, which is why Koepka will be the target heading into this week, despite his recent form before Memphis. He wouldn’t have it any other way.

“I like that,” Koepka said in February, of being the two-time defending champion. “Everybody wants to be in that spot. There’s nothing wrong with it. Obviously, they are all doing that because you did something good and that’s what you want. Just keep plugging away. It’s not a normal event, but you know, it’s a major; you’re hyped up and you’re pumped to play and ready to go, just get out there and go do what you’re supposed to do.”

Koepka, 30, had a chance to win three straight U.S. Open titles last year, but finished second to Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Koepka and Woods are the only players in major championship history to have chances in consecutive years of winning different majors three straight times. Woods had opportunities to win three straight Open Championship titles in 2007 (he finished 12th) and three straight PGA Championship titles in 2008, when he didn’t play because of knee surgery.

Over the past four years, no one has been more dominant than Koepka in the majors. In his past 12 starts in majors, his combined score is 70-under par. The next-closest competitor is Rickie Fowler at 34 under. At Bellerive in 2018, he set the PGA Championship scoring record at 264, which matched the lowest 72-hole total of any major. He shot 128 in the first 36 holes at Bethpage Black last year, another scoring record for any major, before holding on at the end.

Koepka hasn’t exactly made many friends on tour along the way. Before last year’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black, he famously said the majors might be the easiest tournaments to win. Among the 156 players in the field, “[You] figure at least 80 of them I’m just going to beat. From there, you figure about half of them won’t play well from there, so you’re down to about maybe 35. And then from 35, some them just — pressure is going to get to them. It only leaves you a few more, and you’ve just got to beat those guys.”

In an interview published last week, Koepka told Golfweek’s Eamon Lynch that he doesn’t have any close friends on the PGA Tour.

“I’m not close with any of the guys out there,” Koepka said, according to Lynch. “We are friends, but at the same time I’ve got enough friends. I see these guys 22 weeks of the year. When I go home I don’t need to see them for another 30 weeks.”

Koepka said he doesn’t play practice rounds or practice with other tour players because he doesn’t want to help them.

“I don’t go play with guys when I’m at home,” he told Lynch. “I don’t stick to myself, but if I’m practicing I’m not trying to help other guys out at the same time. I’m not going to tee it up in a practice round with guys. I feel like you’re giving them an advantage in how you see the golf course and strategy.”

While Koepka has been criticized for only focusing on majors and not playing as well in other events, it’s clear his blueprint to peak before the tournaments that matter most is working. Four times a year, he becomes Reggie Jackson in October, Tom Brady in the Super Bowl and Roger Federer on grass. No one is better.

“A major? I mean, it puts you in a different category than everybody else,” Koepka said. “You can win as many tour events as you want, but at the end of the day, you’re remembered by how many majors you’ve won. You look at it, and I’ve said it before, Arnie, Jack, Tom Watson, Gary Player, all these guys, I can’t tell you how many PGA Tour events they won, but I promise you everybody knows how many majors they won.”

We know how many Koepka has already won: four. And he might be poised to add one more this week.

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