Brooks Koepka knows the different modes of heavy lifting. There is the Muscle Beach, pumping-iron kind, which allows a person to overpower a golf course and win the U.S. Open. There also is the kind that helps you boost your own spirits when it seems like it is taking forever for an injury to heal.
He missed a chunk of this season, including the Masters, because of a damaged wrist. It was tough, not being able to play or even practice. It was especially difficult this year because it cost him the honor of repeatedly walking to the first tee and hearing the starter say, “2017 U.S. Open champion, Brooks Koepka!”
“To be honest, I haven’t heard it for the last five months,” Koepka said recently, shortly after his return. He took his absence in stride, as he does most things. “It’s a nice reminder, right before you tee off. But trust me, I know I’ve won. That’s all that matters.”
Now he is showing signs that he is ready to win again. He finished with a 63, including an albatross (a 2 on a par 5) at The Players, then shot two 63s to finish second at the Fort Worth Invitational.
Having brought the sprawling Erin Hills layout to its knees with his power off the tee and elsewhere, he heads to Shinnecock Hills this week seeking to be the first repeat U.S. Open winner since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989. He has put himself in position to have another replica U.S. Open trophy to match the one at his Florida home (he got to hold onto the original for nearly a year, then sent it back so it could go on a tour of Long Island and elsewhere in the metropolitan area).
“It’s nice to have it at the house, to always kind of remind you,” he said. When he was asked what sort of special shrine he had created for it, he said, “It’s in one of the back rooms.”
Koepka was just as reserved in winning the trophy as he is in displaying it. He is not the emotive type, at least not on the outside. “I was excited. I’m not going to show the media and everyone else the excitement,” he told a reporter. “I was celebrating with my team. We had a great time. I celebrate with them. I could (not) care less about celebrating in front of you guys.”
His mother, Denise Jakows, said, “He is very low-key. But there are random things that happen throughout the year that are a ton of fun. He’ll say, ‘Oh, we’re going on vacation.’ And then we’ll be on vacation. We don’t necessarily follow calendar holidays, but there are Brooks’ holidays nonetheless and they are fun.”
Jakows raised Brooks and his younger brother Chase on her own after her divorce from their father. She knows better than anyone that there is an extra layer of strength in the long-driving golfer, who does grueling workouts with Dustin Johnson, his friend and predecessor as U.S. Open champion. The mom saw the heavy lifting that Brooks did to hold their little family together when she was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer seven years ago.
Brooks took time off from his classes and golf at Florida State to care for her. When he had to return for exams, he handed the reins to Chase, who has said his brother became a more determined golfer and person from that point on.
Their mom made it through daunting chemotherapy and is fit enough to walk the course with her older son. She was there at The Players on Mother’s Day, watching Koepka’s double-eagle from close range. “It has actually been a great day,” she said then. “My younger son, Chase, over on the European Tour, did very well today over in Sicily.
“With two sons on different tours, I get no sleep,” she said, noting that she is up before dawn to follow Chase’s rounds on the computer.
That really is not very different from her schedule when her boys were younger and she drove them to tournaments. Looking back on it, Brooks especially seems to have been a typical golf prodigy, making the high school varsity team as a sixth grader.
Truth be told, though, if he had his way, he would have been a baseball player. It is in his blood, as the grand-nephew of Dick Groat, a five-time All-Star, two-time world champion (1960 Pirates and 1964 Cardinals) and 1960 National League Most Valuable Player and batting champion. Koepka tried that sport, but he was not much of a batter. He admits that he wasn’t the power hitter at the plate that he is in the tee box.
He still loves the game. Koepka prevailed on college buddy Buster Posey, the Giants catcher, to get him into the park for the All-Star Game last July. The U.S. Open champion marveled at the swing of Aaron Judge.
When he was asked recently what he thought of Yoenis Cespedes’ theory that golf helps a baseball swing, Koepka said, “I don’t know, I haven’t swung a bat in a while. But it could. I do know he plays a lot. I know he goes down to the Floridian and sees my coach (Claude Harmon) when he’s down there for spring training. I know he hits the ball a mile.”
On tour, that is what people say about Koepka. They also hint that he has an uplifting air about him.
“I can’t say enough about him,” said Marc Turnesa of Rockville Centre, a PGA Tour buddy, whom Koepka lured out of retirement to play in the Zurich Classic team event this year — the latter’s first tournament after the injury. “We had the best time ever. I certainly didn’t expect him to ask me to play. I played terrible, he played great. But it didn’t matter because we had such a good time.
“Forget about his golf ability, which is off the charts. He’s a complete gentleman and a professional. He’s all business. He doesn’t overthink. He knows he’s good and he just goes one shot at a time. He’s confident he’s going to be able to hit it where he wants to,” Turnesa said. “He’s going to be the No. 1 player in the world.”
This week, being No. 1 in the U.S. again, and lifting the trophy, will be fine for Koepka.