Brooks Koepka drew a lot of attention Sunday at the PGA Championship, and not only because he entered the final round just two strokes off the lead in his bid for a third straight Wanamaker Trophy.
The four-time major winner drew fire for a comment he made in a post-round interview Saturday night that was widely interpreted as dismissive of his one-time friend and one-time major winner Dustin Johnson, who was leading the tournament, and of other players near the top of the board.
“A lot of the guys on the leaderboard, I don’t think have won, I guess DJ has only won one. I don’t know a lot of the other guys up there,” Koepka said.
Through 54 holes, Scottie Scheffler and Cameron Champ trailed Johnson by one shot, while Koepka was one stroke further back alongside Paul Casey and eventual winner Collin Morikawa. Rory McIlroy was among those who considered the comment disrespectful.
“It’s a very different mentality to bring to golf that I don’t think a lot of golfers have,” McIlroy said after Sunday’s final round. “I was watching the golf last night and heard the interview and was just sort of taken aback a little bit by sort of what he said and whether he was trying to play mind games or not.”
“I mean, sort of hard to knock a guy who’s got 21 wins on the PGA Tour, which is three times what Brooks has,” he added pointedly.
Golfweek spoke with Koepka Wednesday about the fallout from his remarks, if he has any regrets, and whether he has reached out to Johnson.
Eamon Lynch: What was the intent of the comment?
Brooks Koepka: I honestly was struggling coming down the end of the third round. I was well back and I saw DJ was at minus-9. I birdied to get to minus-7. I was focused on Dustin. I had no idea who was at 8 or with me at 7. To be honest, when I’m looking at a leaderboard I’m never looking at who is behind me or tied with me, I only look ahead. I view myself as going forward no matter what. So I regret that part of it. That’s what I was trying to say — that I didn’t know who was on the leaderboard at that point because I hadn’t looked. I just genuinely didn’t know the guys at 8 and 7. That part I regret and I wish I had used different words because I didn’t pay enough attention to who was under Dustin because he was my main focus. When someone asks if I can win, I’m always going to say yes, that’s the competitor in me. I’m not there to finish second. I think that’s where some of the cocky stuff comes from because I always think I can win and truly believe it.
Lynch: So it’s specifically the “other guys” portion of the comment you feel badly about?
Koepka: Yeah, it’s definitely that part because that’s a shot at all the other guys. We pretty much know everybody, we grew up playing golf with them and it came across that I had no idea who these guys are. And that’s completely false.
Lynch: Have you communicated with DJ about it since Saturday night?
Koepka: No, I haven’t spoken to any players who played in that field since then about any of my comments.
Lynch: Do you plan to reach out to DJ specifically?
Koepka: That’s not something I’m planning on doing.
Lynch: Did the comments backfire on you? Did you put too much pressure on yourself to back it up on Sunday?
Koepka: Obviously, a lot came from it. I don’t mind the pressure of that stuff. I put more pressure on myself than anything external. At the same time, I didn’t back it up. That’s my own problem. Part of being someone who talks openly and truthfully is that sometimes I come off cocky or arrogant, and it can backfire if you’re not going to play good. That’s exactly what happened.
Lynch: Were you shocked at how poorly you played?
Koepka: Yeah. I got stunned at the bogey at 2 and other ones at 7, 8 and 9. By that point, I was already out of it. I was just trying to cheer Paul [Casey] on because he had a chance to win and my shot was long gone. Based on the social media conversation, half of golf fans seem to appreciate you as a competitive beast and the other half dislike you as a mouthy jerk.
Lynch: Are you okay with that?
Koepka: I think there are layers to that question. I’m not the typical golf guy. I don’t know how else to put that. We didn’t belong to fancy country clubs. I’m not someone who can’t wait to go play those exclusive courses around the country. It doesn’t ‘ooh’ and awe me like it does other people …
Lynch: Are you a misfit on the PGA Tour?
Koepka: I don’t know if I would say misfit, but it’s definitely not my perfect place, I’d put it that way.
Lynch: Do you struggle with the idea of golf as a gentlemanly game where criticizing or tweaking or even being jocular with other players can get an outsized reaction?
Koepka: To a certain extent. I’ve been portrayed as the villain, right? I’m different, super competitive, fiery. My idea of talking trash is a whole lot different than other people’s. I get the whole villain thing and I can definitely play into it, and I have as you’ve seen with the whole Brandel [Chamblee] thing. Not being afraid to chirp up. But if you’re going to do that then you’ve got to back it up and last week I didn’t back it up. I’m okay with the repercussions of that. I’ve got thick skin. I can handle it.
Lynch: But there is a perception of you as thin-skinned and sensitive to criticism.
Koepka: I can see how it comes across as thin-skinned to a lot of people …
Lynch: You do swing at every pitch.
Koepka: You should see a lot of it every time I log on to Twitter. There’s someone taking a shot. That’s professional sport. We’re supposed to be able to bite our tongue a lot of times. I also think the way I’ve grown up is we take fun jabs at each other. My family, my brother, my best friends. My friends have a group chat and I was looking back at the text messages. When I made bogey on 2 on Sunday they’re like, ‘Okay, pack it in he’s done, get him out of there. It’s over.’ That’s the way my personal life always is. It can come across as blunt, but it’s truthful. Sometimes, being truthful in my monotone comes across the wrong way.
Lynch: Does golf need more guys like you willing to light it up to engage more fans?
Koepka: I think so. We’re in a different day and age. The one thing I’ve always said I had an issue with is golf seems to live in the past. Every other sport seems to evolve and progress with the times and golf just doesn’t seem to do that. Look at football. They weren’t dancing in the end zone, signing footballs or pulling phones out of their pockets 40 years ago. I fully understand there will be people who don’t like that and I respect that. I’m cool with it.
Lynch: Rory McIlroy was one of many people who thought your comment was disrespectful to DJ and the other guys on the leaderboard. Your response?
Koepka: When I’m talking, it’s always truthful. And Rory didn’t say anything that was untrue. He was completely truthful and I have no problem with it. I didn’t see it as a jab. My comment wasn’t either, I wasn’t really going after the guy. Golf is obviously more of a respectful sport so you don’t go full-on trash talking. It just doesn’t seem like a right hook, but I see how people can perceive that.
Lynch: Will the blowback on this make you rethink being outspoken going forward or are you just going be to you?
Koepka: One of the things I’ve always loved about people is if they’re genuinely themselves. When I first came out, I was very quiet, very reserved but in my personal life, if you hang out with me, I’m very vocal, I love to chat and have no problem dishing it and taking it. That’s more of who I am and I don’t want to change for anybody. I’m still going to be me. I can’t be anyone else and I’m okay with it if people aren’t fans of that.
Lynch: That sounds like an alibi in advance for the offense you might give in the future.
Koepka: I don’t think so. There are times when I’ve called people out and I’ve always said if I do something wrong to call me out. This seems to be where a lot of people have taken offense to it. I understand we’re in sensitive times and I think people are a little too sensitive anyways. If it was really offensive I have no problem with people coming at me and saying that. I can take. I’m a big boy and a professional. If everyone thinks that’s a mistake, so be it.