There has been a symmetry to Brooks Koepka’s glittering run in both the U.S. Open and PGA Championship since 2017. Each of his winning streaks was birthed in the Midwest (Bellerive, Erin Hills) and cemented in New York (Shinnecock Hills, Bethpage Black). Will both end in California?
Last summer at Pebble Beach, Koepka finished second in his bid to become the first man in 115 years to win three straight U.S. Opens. Next month he aims to become the first man in 93 years to win three straight PGA Championships. We caught up with the four-time major winner to talk about his tilt at history, why he doesn’t have a rival and what he really thinks of Bryson DeChambeau.
Lynch: Did the pandemic break help or hinder your preparation for the PGA Championship?
Koepka: Given that I was injured (a knee injury), it was a blessing in disguise. Now I’m 100-percent healthy, the best I’ve felt in three years. Speed is there. Mobility is there. Now it’s a matter of going out and playing.
Does bidding for three straight wins add to the pressure?
I can only go off experience, and the U.S. Open was just another major (Koepka won the 2017 and 2018 U.S. Opens before finishing second in 2019 at Pebble Beach). I wasn’t thinking about three in a row. I was thinking, “I’m here to do a job. Let’s go win it.” That’s how I’ll approach this one.
So the experience from Pebble Beach will be beneficial.
It could be, just for the fact that I played well at Pebble. I’ve lost to one person the last three years. If you think of all the applicants, that’s pretty neat. I can fall back on the thought process.
Are you prepared for the possibility that the PGA might yet be canceled?
If we can play, great. I’ll be there. If not, well, we’ll try next year.
Have you looked to see who last won three PGAs in a row? Or three straight in any major?
No, but I’m sure you have. (Told it was Walter Hagen 93 years ago, and Peter Thomson in the Open Championship in the ’50s.) That’s pretty crazy, isn’t it? When you think how many great players have come through, to do something only a few have ever done is pretty cool.
What’s your game plan for Harding Park?
They played the Match Play there in ’15, so I remember it. It’s a big-boy golf course. You’ve got to hit it long and straight. I show up and Monday is all about sight lines off the tee. Tuesday is figuring out where to miss if the pin location is in a particular place. Wednesday, kind of go play nine. It’s my relaxing day.
Will the absence of fans bother you?
I’m going to miss them, for sure. I like hearing s— when I mess up, and I like hearing the good stuff. You can ride their energy.
What do you consider your greatest strength?
I’m very good when it comes to difficult situations, how to handle it when things aren’t going my way.
And your weakness?
Getting very relaxed. It doesn’t happen in majors; it happens in regular PGA Tour events. It’s not placing enough importance on your day-to-day job. You can get lackadaisical.
You’re the only player who hears that he needs to do in Tour events what he does in majors.
My argument to that is people don’t realize I have finished second nine times. All my top-10s last year were top-5s. You can backdoor a top-10, but if you’re top-5 then you’re pretty damn close to having a chance to win.
Who’s your best friend on Tour?
I’m not close with any of the guys out here. 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, you know?
So you’re not as close as you were with DJ (Dustin Johnson)?
That got blown out of proportion because we worked out in the same gym. We no longer do that. All of last year at least we weren’t working out together. I’ve got all the friends I need, friends that I grew up with and enjoy being around. They’re not big into the golf scene. I don’t go play with guys when I’m at home. 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.
You said you don’t see Rory McIlroy as a rival. Did that change any when he took your No. 1 ranking?
I just don’t view anyone as a rival. When I said that, I meant when have we ever competed going down the back nine besides Memphis? It hasn’t happened in a major. I would even argue Tiger and Phil weren’t a rivalry. If it’s one-sided, how is there a rivalry? Rivalries are created.
Look at football, soccer, basketball – those teams have been in the championship game consistently or are from the same town. Golf is just not that way.
So you don’t look for anyone’s name when you scroll a leaderboard.
I look at the low score, see where I’m at and just plug on. I’m not concerned with how anyone else plays. I’m only worried about myself, and so is every other player out here. You notice where other guys are – Rory’s made a charge, or Tiger’s made a charge – but if my name isn’t at the top, I gotta make a run regardless.
You’ve never liked the notion that golfers ought to be deferential to each other. Fair to say you enjoy poking?
I do, it’s fun. I enjoy it when people give me a jab. I’m not going to start anything, but if you’re going to take a shot at me, I’ll take a shot at you. [Laughs] I’ll make sure my shot hurts a little bit worse.
At last year’s Northern Trust, I was standing with [Koepka’s caddie] Ricky Elliott when Bryson DeChambeau asked him to tell you to make any comments about slow play to his face. When you got the message, you went right over to talk to him. That face-to-face stuff doesn’t happen much on Tour.
Golfers hate confrontation. I don’t know what it is, but they’re afraid of it. With a lot of guys, when they fire somebody, they’ll have their manager fire them instead of having the balls to do it themselves. That’s ridiculous. If you have an issue, go say it face to face. Listen, I don’t have to like you, but I can respect you. I’ve never had a problem with Bryson. I just thought he was slow. Then when he went up to Ricky and was like, “Tell your man to come find me and say it face to face.” Well, I thought that was kind of an oxymoron to go to Ricky. I thought it was kind of cowardly, if I’m honest. But at the same time, if he’s going to say that then I’m going to go up and say, “Okay, I’m here.”
Do you enjoy playing with him?
I don’t get paired with him much. We’re two totally different people. He wouldn’t be anyone I would hang out with outside of golf, and I think he would say the same thing. Which is totally cool. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just two completely different personalities. I’ve got no issue with him. He’s just never going to be my best friend, we’ll put it that way.
What separates you from other guys out here?
People get afraid. People get nervous.
Have you ever been afraid on a golf course?
No. I got a little nervous the first time I teed it up at Augusta, but that was more excitement. Nerves I don’t get. Nerves come from thinking of results. There’s a lot of times you’re going to fail and a lot of times you’re going to succeed. It’s just a matter if it’s the right time.
If not nerves, then what do you feel on the closing holes of a major?
It’s tunnel vision the whole way around, but on the back nine you kind of black out a little. Get in your own world. If your life depended on it and you had to make a par or birdie, what would you do? That’s kind of the approach I have.
Do you still sit on the beach in Florida every winter to take stock of the year and set goals?
This year I was in La Jolla [California], so I wrote my goals there. I spent a month and a half there doing rehab.
Care to share the goals?
Double digits in the majors is definitely one of them. I think that’s very attainable. I don’t focus on the other wins. You’ll always remember how many majors Jack Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer or Tom Watson or Gary Player won, but I don’t think you could tell me how many PGA Tour events they won. That’s no shot at the Tour, but that’s what you’re remembered by. In basketball it’s how many championships you’ve won.
In football it’s how many rings you’ve got. My whole thing is the majors.
In between majors, any plans to show your ass in public again this year?
Now that everyone has seen my ass (on social media posts in a thong), I’m definitely not going to turn around and take a photo that way. Everybody’s good. I think they’ve seen me enough.