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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Root for Brooks Koepka; as a major champion he's earned the right

The patrons look on as Brooks Koepka hits

The patrons look on as Brooks Koepka hits his tee shot to the fourth green during a practice round for the Masters on Tuesday in Augusta, Ga. Photo Credit: AP/Curtis Compton

AUGUSTA, Ga. — Overlooking Brooks Koepka is easy to do. It is sort of an unofficial national pastime in golf, and it goes way back.

All the way back to when he was seven or eight years old in the late 1990s, up from Florida on a family trip to the Masters. “I was standing by the old range and somehow found my way kind of right by the parking lot,” he said.

That was perfect positioning to get Phil Mickelson’s signature, the prime target in young Koepka’s exhaustive autograph hunt. “He turned me down,” Koepka said Tuesday at Augusta National Golf Club. Referring to Mickelson’s reputation for being accommodating, Koepka added, “Probably about the only kid Phil has ever turned down.

“He told me years later that I shouldn’t have been in the parking lot, so fair enough.”

Many people still more or less reject Koepka, 28. They complain that he is too boring to root for, despite the fact he has won three major championships in the past two years. He has been known to get miffed by those snubs, and just as much to be motivated by them.

At the PGA Championship last August, he told of how people in a workout spa were so excited because Dustin Johnson had been there — not realizing that they were telling the story to Koepka, the guy leading the tournament.

Truth is, Koepka is not boring and he is one heck of a golfer. He will deserve a hero’s welcome when he arrives at Bethpage next month for this year’s PGA. He deserves the kind of reception Mickelson always gets in the New York area.

Koepka might not be the best bet to win the Masters this week. He is trying to overcome the loss of 24 pounds from an overeager dieting program. He underwent blood tests during the Players “to see what was going on” and says he feels better now. Better he should have followed dieting advice from his workout partner Johnson, who said, “I’ve never counted calories. If I’m hungry, I eat until I’m not hungry anymore and then I stop.”

In any case, Koepka is regaining strength. His greatest hunger is for more major championship trophies, and recognition. Fans who show up at the Black Course next month ought to know that there is more depth to him than they realize.

He took time off from college to care for his mother when she had cancer, after his parents divorced. He also remains a good friend of his dad, who last week posted a photo from a golf date with his two sons (Chase Koepka is a pro who plays in Europe). Brooks is a good dude who insisted that his good PGA Tour buddy Marc Turnesa of Rockville Centre be his partner in the Zurich Classic last year despite knowing full well Turnesa had hardly played in months.

During a February media tour to promote the PGA Championship, Koepka teed off on slow play, confessing that he deliberately slows down his own pace while playing with notorious sluggards just so the group gets a formal warning to play faster. He said the tour “doesn’t have the [guts] to enforce slow play penalties. He criticized Sergio Garcia for gouging greens in a European Tour event.

He is tough as nails on the course. It is doubtful that anyone else could have held off Tiger Woods’ charge at the 2018 PGA Championship. Koepka has earned the admiration of the pro who once stiffed him for an autograph. “It’s a little weird but it’s pretty cool, too, to be able to play with him and see his greatness shine,” Mickelson said Tuesday.

Koepka will come to Bethpage with a double distinction, as defending champion of the PGA and defending champion on Long Island, having won the U.S. Open last June at Shinnecock Hills. He will be worth rooting for and chances are, he will be signing autographs, at least for kids.

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