MAMARONECK, N.Y. — When the final putt fell in last year’s U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, Brooks Koepka could claim to have lost to only one man in the 117th, 118th and 119th stagings of the championship combined. He will still be able to make that claim when he arrives for the 121st edition of the Open next summer at Torrey Pines.
The 2017 and ’18 champion finished second to Gary Woodland in his bid for a three-peat in ‘19, but his shimmering run came to an abrupt end eight days before a shot was struck in ‘20.
“Unfortunately, I have decided to withdraw from next week’s U.S. Open,” he posted on Twitter September 8. “I’m looking forward to getting healthy and competing at 100% against very soon.”
So while 144 of the world’s best golfers battled the conditions and the cut line at Winged Foot, the guy who used to be the best was laid up closer to next year’s venue in Southern California. Koepka is staying in a rented home in San Diego, where he is undergoing intensive rehab for knee and hip ailments. I texted the four-time major winner Friday morning, just as conditions were predictably toughening in the event that has defined his career.
Care to check-in, I asked?
“My check-in is that I’m alive,” he quickly replied. “I don’t want to take away from anything the players are doing this week.”
This has been an atypical year in golf, and it’s certainly an atypical U.S. Open Friday for Koepka, who is more accustomed to spending this day stalking leaderboards. Through 36 holes at Pebble Beach, he was five behind Woodland, and eventually finished three back in solo second. In 2018 at Shinnecock Hills, he was five back of Dustin Johnson and went on to win by one. A year before that he entered the weekend in a four-way tie for the lead at Erin Hills and cruised to a four-shot victory.
It’s in keeping with 2020’s dismal ledger that Koepka isn’t competing at Winged Foot. But nor is he even watching.
Koepka texted that he didn’t watch a single shot of the first-round action and only briefly checked the leaderboard late Thursday night. What might seem a surprising admission of disinterest is really in keeping with his competitive loner approach to his work. A lion who isn’t hungry doesn’t waste time watching others in the pride feasting. Which is not to say Koepka doesn’t have an eye on his next meal.
In that curt statement announcing his WD from WF, Koepka offered no specifics and no timeline for a return. It was the latest setback in what has been a miserable year for the former world No. 1. He missed several months after reinjuring his knee in South Korea last October, returned just in time to see the PGA Tour go into lockdown during the Covid-19 pandemic, then had to withdraw from an early start back at the Travelers Championship when his caddie, Rickie Elliott, tested positive.
For a brief time however, the Koepka of old remerged as he finished T-2 in Memphis and played his way into contention at the PGA Championship at Harding Park. The old cage-rattling swagger was back too as he aimed for a third straight win. During a Saturday night TV interview he dropped a drone strike on his former friend Johnson, whom he trailed by two entering the final round, casting shade on DJ’s meager major tally. In the end, neither man added to his total. Johnson recorded his fifth runner-up finish in a major while his antagonist slumped to a 74 and a T-29 finish.
When asked by Golfweek a few days later if he intended to reach out to Johnson, Koepka replied, “That’s not something I’m planning on doing.” Since then, he has been beset with injuries and missed the FedEx Cup playoffs, which Johnson won for the first time.
While Koepka rehabs on the West Coast, the 120th U.S. Open continues on the east. Few competitors at Winged Foot will mourn the absence of a man who is perhaps the most old-style U.S. Open player in the modern game, one of those cold-blooded competitors who would think twice before even giving an opponent a Heimlich. This championship was once synonymous with stoic, unflappable types who went about their business with cool detachment. The Hale Irwins, the Curtis Stranges, the Payne Stewarts. If Koepka was here, he’d expect to win and wouldn’t be shy about saying so.
But he’s on a couch in California. So whose name does he think will be etched just beneath his on the trophy Sunday night?
“My pick from the start was Xander [Schauffele],” he offered. “It should suit him very well.” After rounds of 68-72, Schauffele is at even par and well-positioned entering the weekend.
So if he didn’t watch the first round of the Open, and won’t be watching the second, what is he doing outside of rehab treatments? Watching NBA playoffs, he confessed. “I’m really rooting for Penn National and DraftKings,” he wrote, a sly nod to the bets he has riding on games. “Need a good day out of them!”
Otherwise, his time is spent with his girlfriend, Jena Sims, a couple of her friends and a collection of their pets. “Glorified dog sitter,” he joked. “Add it to my resume.”
Of course, this rehab is all about adding an entirely different honor to his resume, one that is bestowed 58 days from now when the Masters hands out a green jacket. He had one arm in it last year before finishing second to Tiger Woods. On this U.S. Open Friday, Koepka’s only goal is to make it to the tee on Masters Thursday.
“All of this is for Augusta,” he wrote.