It is hard to imagine now, but Brooks Koepka was almost totally forgotten by his peers little over a year ago. He was at home in Florida, recovering from a wrist injury, wondering if he ever would play again and disappointed that no one seemed to care.
Sure, his buddy and fellow Jupiter, Florida, resident Dustin Johnson stopped by every now and then. But outside of that? Just about nothing. Except for the text he received during the Masters, when Koepka was feeling especially low. The text was from Phil Mickelson.
“I just have a lot of respect for him and his game and how hard he works and the process he went through after he left amateur golf as a pro to make it out here,” Mickelson said at Bethpage Black on Saturday, which ended with him trailing Koepka by 18 strokes in the PGA Championship. “I’ve always had a lot of respect for him. And he’s playing some remarkable golf.”
Koepka is on track to do something no one has ever done before, being a reigning two-time winner of two majors simultaneously (in his case, it would be the U.S. Open and PGA). It is a tribute to the way he bounced back from the bad wrist — he had to take a 15-week hiatus and was unable to touch a club for 91 days — that no one is within seven shots of him.
No one is more impressed than Mickelson, who Koepka has mentioned as a spirit-lifter since his recovery. “It’s not easy. This is really not an easy test,” Mickelson said of the Black Course, on which he twice finished second in U.S. Opens and on which he shot 6-over-par 76 Saturday.
“What’s so great about the setup is, if you play well like Brooks is playing, it’s rewarding you. And if you hit some poor shots, like I did, it really penalizes pretty severely,” the 48-year-old said.
His friendship with, and appreciation for, Koepka began during their first practice round together at the 2013 PGA Championship. “You knew he was going to be good, but you never know how good. He just kept getting better and better,” Mickelson said. “It was pretty obvious. He always had a good golf swing. He struck it well. He had a lot of game. It was just, was he going to continue to progress and stay driven and motivated to do the things necessary? And he has.”
What Koepka has yet to do is gain the adulation of Long Island fans, who sort of adopted Mickelson on his birthday during the 2002 U.S. Open and never have let go. They cheered loudly for him Saturday, especially for his three birdies. (All told it was spirited at the Black, not over the top. As a marshal near the crowded 17th hole said, “It’s a lot soberer than I thought it would be.”)
Koepka never received the visceral roars that more celebrated players receive, although he did hear some calls of “Brooksie!” down the stretch. Maybe that will improve on Sunday if, as expected, he rolls to a fourth major title in a four-year span — and a second on Long Island within 11 months.
Mickelson, meanwhile, will be trying to make progress. “Obviously, I’m not going to win this tournament. But the greens are very similar to Pebble Beach,” he said. “The rough is very similar, the grasses in the fairway are similar. There’s never a wasted round or a wasted shot. You can learn on every single one of them.”
Pebble Beach, of course, will be the venue next month for the U.S. Open, the one void in Mickelson’s career. He has come excruciatingly close on numerous occasions, starting in 1999, when he was runner-up to Payne Stewart.
“I probably would have thought I would have won one by now,” he said. “But it’s still a fun challenge for me.”
The challenge is going to be as tough as ever, considering the field will include someone who has won the past two U.S. Opens and has looked unbeatable this week — as Mickelson always suspected.